LPL Stories: Winter 2015
Charlyene Blunt, Program Manager at Christian Cultural Center in East New York, Brooklyn (and Just Food Veggie Educator/Community Chef!), interviews Dennis Roohr of New Jersey-based Cranberry Hall Farm, which supplies produce for the Coney Island Local Produce Link hub.
Charlyene: How do you decide which fruits or vegetables you will plant each season?
Dennis: Well, the first thing is that we're totally married to what grows in our geographic area, what's seasonal. We also look at what our pantry customers desire the most. And that gives us our baseline. Then we try to challenge the Community Chefs with different varieties that we feel we could successfully develop in a given year. Generally we try one or two different items each year. It's pretty much experimental. Some times we end up not being able to handle it and sometimes the customers at the sites just don't like it. This year, we're going to try some red kohlrabi. In the past the kohlrabi was hot and cold. But maybe the red kohlrabi will be an attention grabber and add a little color to salads and what not.
Charlyene: How do you deal with pests infiltrating the crop?
Dennis: We use what's called IPM, that's Integrated Pest Management. Here's an example: let's say we have aphids. We don't do anything so long as the aphid threshold is at a level that the praying mantis or the ladybugs can successfully control. That's natural. But as soon as the number of aphids exceeds that threshold and threatens economic loss, so, for example, we reach a point where the potato beetles are just decimating our potatoes, then we go in with the most environmentally gentle product available, and that's the application part of our management program. Our first choice is to see if nature can take care of it. Let's say a big thunderstorm is coming, and you've got aphids under there, you can hold off spraying because often the thunderstorm will wash the aphids off the plants and into the mud. So it's an integrated process that relies on the most effective but environmentally sensitive control.
Charlyene: What has been the most rewarding aspect of farming for so many years?
Dennis: Being part of nature. Producing food, and feeling like I'm doing something that is so necessary for basically every living thing. Honestly, that's why I'm the world's worst flower grower. It's a waste! Get rid of these flowers and give me some tomatoes.
Charlyene: Do you hire seasonal workers? How many? Are you able to pay them a living wage without compromising your family's financial well being?
Dennis: Yes. We hire about 10-12 people in our busiest season. In terms of their wages, here's what it comes down to, and for this I have to give kudos to the Local Produce Link program. When we can deliver our products at a reasonable and fair price, then we can budget and be able to pay a reasonable and fair wage. I'll give you an example. Recently I sent some butternut squash to United Way and I think I got a fair and reasonable price. I had some extra boxes which I sent to a wholesaler and I didn't get much more than the cost of the boxes. So if I was in that wholesale market full-time, how could I possibly pay anybody a fair wage? So the answer is that when we have outlets that are fair and reasonable, like Local Produce Link, I think we can pay people a fair wage. Last year we provided housing and utilities to our full-time people. They only had to cover their cellphone bill and that's it. And we were $2 above the minimum wage plus the housing and utilities.
Charlyene: Why do you still farm?
Dennis: Why did Samuel Clemens write books? Why did Ernest Hemingway write books? It defined them as authors, didn't it? That's the definition of Dennis, he's a farmer. It's what I get up in the morning and do.
Charlyene: If you could change one thing about the farming industry what would it be?
Dennis: I would change the way agricultural products are handled at all of the market places, from the produce terminals to the Chicago marketing exchange. The actual marketing of fruits and vegetables and how it gets from the farm to the user. I see skids and skids and skids of all kinds of food, more than skids, that are just being dumped because our marketing system doesn't make it easy to link what is actually produced to consumers desires and needs. Take, for example, the Chicago market for commodities. I really cringe that commodity food prices are being set not by the availability or need for food but by other global factors like the relative strength or weakness of European currency. The average bushel of corn produced in the US is traded in Chicago 23 times. So that shows you that there are a lot of artificial factors involved.
I really believe that there are great alternatives, like Local Produce Link, which represent a distinct and well-organized way of determining what is produced and how much is produced at an agreed upon reasonable price. I really think that type of marketing would put a lot more food on peoples' tables that right now have a problem with affording food. What are the statistics? 40% of everything that is produced is wasted. So that's what I would change.
Canada has a much simpler system. It's a quota system. As a farmer, you get a good price for what you produce within your quota. And if you grow more than your quota, you know you're going to get a lower price. Canada has a higher cost of living than the US across the board, but they have a much better agricultural policy than the US.
Charlyene: If you were not a farmer what other profession would you pursue?
Dennis: If I weren't farming, if my kids said they were going to come back and take over, I would try to consult for some non-profit. The reason is that I have worked in town, and seen so many people just come in, do their job, and go home. There are a lot of other opportunities that people aren't pursuing because, especially, the non-profits, they are really stretched. Like the Head Start program I work with. I think they could use someone coming in on a piece-meal basis as a consultant.
Dennis and Susan Roohr have owned and operated Cranberry Hall Farm in Cookstown, New Jersey since 1982. They grow vegetables, grains, and raise livestock on about 400 acres of beautiful land.
Charlyene Blunt is a certified early childhood/special education teacher and the program manager for Christian Cultural Center's Food Assistance Program in East New York, Brooklyn. She has worked at Christian Cultural Center's pantry since 2005, and served as a Just Food Community Chef and Veggie Educator since 2009. The pantry serves approximately 250 people per week.