You think your job is tough? Try coming home and announcing to your spouse, “Honey, 20 percent of this year’s income just got blown away last night.” Or flooded. Or uprooted, or battered down by hail. It’s a risk that would send even the most shark-aggressive investor cringing under his bed. But for those two percent of Americans still tilling the soil on their farms, this is the common currency of life.
This year, a host of Middlesex families will again make the pilgrimage to Rodger Jany’s Simonson Farms to harvest home their Christmas trees, wreaths, and other festal foliage that the family farm has been supplying these past six decades. Speaking from his home and store on Dey Road, Jany smiles and says, “This storm we were truly fortunate. Sandy tore up a mere half dozen trees — oh yes, and that ugly gazebo out front.”
Last year, however, Hurricane Irene flooded a full third of the Christmas tree farm’s 60 planted acres for a full week. Jany is still replanting the root-rotted victims of that storm. His wife, Samantha Jany, whose hands tend and sell the farm’s Brown Dog Produce (named after the family’s brown dog), saw her entire two acres of vegetable crops ruined. That was the year the family donated 45 trees to less fortunate families in Hightstown.
Despite such Damaclesian threats, Rodger Jany can’t imagine any other career than carrying on the family agricultural tradition. In 1920, Jany’s great-grandfather, Ed Simonson Sr. bought the 4.5-acre Dey Road “Home Farm.” Shortly thereafter came the first barn fire. In that year, 30.2 million people, nearly a third of America’s populaton, worked on farms. Most all of Plainsboro’s 460 residents held some farm connections.
Rodger smiles with pride as he tells the family history, how by 1937 grandfather Ray Simonson and his brother “Bus” (Edward Jr.) were tending 300 acres of potatoes. In 1972 Rodger’s father, Steve Jany, entered into partnership with Earl Tyndall to form Rustin Farms — their tomatoes supplied Campbell’s Soup Company. For years Steve Jany served on West Windsor’s planning board. Rodger, born in the year of the third barn fire, grew up working on the family’s many and varied plots of land.
The record of which family member owns what is positively Byzantine. In 2006, four years after graduating from Virginia Polytechnic Institute with a bachelor’s in crop science, Rodger Jany purchased half of the family Christmas tree farm and moved into the home farm. Two years ago, he purchased another quarter, giving him 75 percent ownership, leaving his mother the remaining quarter. As to the actual 200 acres of land on which the 60 treed acres sit, Roger leases that from the owners: his mother, Martha Simonson Jany, and her sister, Carol Simonson Applegate. Is it difficult running a business with so many family members? The easy-going Jany nods and laughs, “Well, we occasionally have our issues.”
For the public, Simonson sets the focus on celebration. Strolling the acres of perfectly groomed spruce, white pine, and fir, families select the perfect shape and size, and return to choose from the lavish array of ornaments within the store.
Most buyers select a tree between six and eight feet. You can get a nice fresh-cut Blue Spruce for $68, or cut any fir over seven feet for $60.
“This weekend a fellow bought and cut the largest tree I’ve ever sold,” says Jany. “It was at least 14 feet. I hope it’s an omen.” Since every U-cut tree over seven feet costs only $60, this lavish Christmas decorator made off with a real bargain. Celebrating far more than trees, the Dey Road farm also boasts everything from a candy cane hunt and visits from Santa to hayrides and a hay bale maze.
Although the attractions increase, so does the competition. “A lot of folks are going for those artificial trees that supposedly last for seven years,” says Samantha Jany. Even the loyal following of those who want the real thing for Christmas has dwindled a bit with the 2008 recession. Folks are just spending less in these times.
Today, for the stalwart few remaining involved in agricultural work, there is simply no room for any foolish farmers. Garden State farmers, however, face an even greater challenge than most. “I don’t care what his crop,” says Jany. “Today’s farmer in this state absolutely must have some part of the retail commercial action to survive. It’s as simple as that.”
For tree farmers, like Jany, it begins with a 50-cent seedling that costs about $2 to get into the ground. Not bad if you’re selling it for $68, right? Well look again. First, it takes eight years before that profit rolls in. Then there is the 10 percent of trees that die and the cost of mowing, herbicides, insect sprays, and irrigation. Then come the taxes. Jany also pays one full time worker, four seasonal planters, plus 15 Yuletide trimmers and sales people. That doesn’t count the cost of Jany’s and his wife’s ceaseless labor.
All of these farm chores demand costly equipment. The Simonson Christmas tree farm has more than $100,000 tied up in farm machinery and several thousand in maintenance. For Rodger’s father, Steve Jany, farming his 2,000 acres in annually rotated soy beans and corn ties up more than $1 million in equipment.
Meanwhile, the deer are nibbling away at the profits. “White-tailed deer are what we call edge feeders,” explains Jany. “They feed on the edge of the forest and the open space. The more suburban development, the more forest edges, the more deer.” The good news is that recently hunting restrictions have been eased, particularly for bow hunters. The unfortunate news, for Jany, is that he just doesn’t have any time to hunt and must invite friends with a bit more leisure time to defend his farm.
The unique and omnipresent Jersey challenge is land management. The Garden State is just fine for small, garden-size plots. At least one crop absolutely thrives anywhere in the state. However, so do people. New Jersey is the third smallest, most densely populated state. It is also a prime industrial leader. So what’s a farmer to do?
The successful ones follow Steve Jany’s lead, farming what they can, where they can. Jany owns less than 200 of his Rustin Farm’s 2,000 acres outright. The rest consists of 90 plots of land leased from nearly 50 landlords, spread from Harry’s Army Navy in Robbinsville to several in South Brunswick and everywhere in between. The memory of which field gets tended when with what is a feat of ingrained memory.
“A tractor trundles along the roadway at 18 miles per hour,” notes Rodger. “You cannot believe how much time is spent in transportation.” He estimates that if all his father’s holdings were picked up and dropped in the Midwest in one big clump, the farm would double its yield for the same amount of work.
Most of these landlords are corporate owners, which brings forth another challenge for the farmer. Corporations want to grow when times are good. They plan for it. That’s why they have this spare acreage to lease to farmers. Yet in the desire to keep their options open, very few extend their leases for more than five years. To a purchaser of major equipment, like a farmer, this short-term leasing wreaks havoc with planning and amortizing costs.
Jany Sr. and Jr. both feel this pinch in irrigating their crops. Sinking an irrigating well hole costs many thousands of dollars that must be offset over several years of use and benefit. You’ve got to trust that you’ll still have that land to plant two springs hence.
The Christmas tree farm faces an additional irrigation problem from the NJ Water Supply Authority, an agency that states itself as “in, but not of the EPA.” The farm is allowed to pump 3.1 million gallons a month. When Jany applied for a variance, he was hit with a “Retroactive Debt Payment Fee” of $266,000 and was informed that he could have the permit for $32,000 annually, to be paid whether or not he used the water. “I can’t help noting,” says Jany with a rueful smile, “that that retroactive bill came exactly when a Spruce Run and a Round Valley Reservoir bond issue were coming due.”
Outside in the farm yard, Rodger and Samantha Jany’s four- year-old son steps up to the large aluminum wrapping cylinder. Just as the tree slides through he yanks at the white nylon netting and fastens it around the top of the tree. Dad watches. The next generation is well on its way to taking on the family tradition.
A Farmer’s Work
Think Christmas tree agriculture is the lazy-man’s way of farming? Think you might want to grab a quick tax credit and while you just watch the trees grow? Well, see if you’re up to the non-stop farm chores of the Janys.
January: Examine the fields, order replacement seedlings, cut out old stumps, and clear land for new planting.
February: Grab every warm day for soil preparation.
March: Begin tree planting. Brown Dog Produce acreage gets tilled and planting begins.
April: By mid month, all the trees are planted, (Dame Nature permitting) and all early vegetables e.g. peas, spinach, etc are in the ground.
May: Growth in roots must be established — initial sprayings, soil aerating.
June: Prune all the white pines to that ideal Christmas tree shape.
July: Mow the lanes and clean up the pathways (first time.)
August & September: Prune all spruces, firs and pines.
October: Begin advertising. Plan events, harvest vegetables.
November: Set up yard for retail sales and events.
December 1-25: Sell like mad.
December 26-31: Vacation.
North Pole Tent at Cranbury Neck Road U-Cut Lot, weekends of December 1 and 2, 8, and 9, 15 and 16. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Free Candy Cane Hunt for children 7 and under Saturday, December 1, 11 a.m.; rain/snow date, Sunday, December 2. Kids crafts, coloring activities, haybale maze, pedal tractor/cart area.
Santa visits 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. December 1 and 2; 8 (starting at 1pm), 9; and 15 and 16. All kids activities $5/child, children 2 and under free. Free hayrides (weather permitting), first ride 10 a.m., last leaving at 3:30 p.m. Glen’s Grillin’ & Chillin’ will be at the Cranbury Neck Road Farm providing barbeque on Saturday, December 1.
Simonson Farms, www.simonsonfarms.com. 609-799-0140.