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Farm Stands of Salem County, NJ

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It is curious how we travel to far-away places to rent a car and turn down a country lane to get close to the "real" wherever. Yet, we rarely get into our own car to explore country lanes close to home. I have lived in Philadelphia since 1964 and until my trip to Salem County's back roads, all my trips were through Salem County -- on the main highways -- on the way to Avalon or Cape May.

My goal in the On the Road series is to share with you the joy of discovery that comes from a little intentional wandering. By intentional wandering, I mean doing a little research to establish a few destinations and using this as a starting place to wander. It's neither aimless wandering nor is the destination the singular purpose. Put another way, it purposeful meandering. The idea is to look left and right and not just straight ahead.

Of course, most of my focus will be on food with an occasional non-food observation. This summer I plan to visit Philadelphia-area farm stands and farmers markets. As with all that I do in my blogs, it is my hope that what I share will lead you to more home entertaining.

Some Definitions
First, a few definitions. A Farm Stand is located at a farm and is essentially a rural entity. Farm stands ideally sell only products from that farm or neighboring farms. A variation is a roadside stand that sells local produce from area farmers -- though not attached to any particular farm.

Inevitably, stands sell products brought in from far-away -- like the Texas watermelons offered by one Salem County stand, to augment their sales and provide shoppers convenience. It should always be clear to the shopper what is "Our Own" and "Local."

On the other hand, Farmers Markets provide an urban outpost to a collection of area farmers. They are typically manned by the farmers (or their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers) and sell products just harvested from their farms. Farmers Markets often are mini-malls selling related like products like fresh baked bread and pies.

Why Shop at Farm Stands and Farmers Markets?
Why shop at farm stands or Farmers Markets? As I have said before, cooking that's sensitive to seasonal changes is a way of staying connected to your particular place in the world. And cooking starts with shopping. Food shopping does not have to be a task for which your only satisfaction is crossing out things on a list until you're done. It can be an enjoyable leisure activity.

Fresh produce is a thing of beauty. At a minimum, farm stands and farmers market products are far fresher than similar products you can find in the supermarket. Fresher usually means tastier. Ideally, you occasionally find products that you just don't see in supermarkets -- like the large bunch of dill weed that I purchased to go with the huge $3 basket of Kirby cukes. Though my Kirby cuke purchase was a good buy, in general, low price is not why you go to these markets.

Finally, there is something "life affirming" in buying directly from farmers and, in so doing, supporting their efforts. A world with small local farms is simply a better world. Think of your purchases as a delicious way to help preserve an endangered species.

The Farm Stands of Salem County, NJ
My trip plan began with modest internet research. "Farm stands" --" roadside farm stands" -- "farmers markets" and "Salem County, NJ" brought me to several websites. Though I have appealed for suggestions of farm stands on this blog, no one had offered any in this South Jersey area. And off I went one glorious morning last week.

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Salem County is quintessential South Jersey, located in the southwest corner of the state along the Delaware Bay just below Gloucester County and across from New Castle County, Delaware. It's flat and forested, punctuated by broad expanses of fields, modest farm houses and country residences with above ground pools and clothes hanging on the line to dry in the summer sun. Per capita income is modest at $20,874 Total population of Salem County is about 68,000.

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While not all roads lead to Pittsgrove Township, there did seem to be a cluster of farm stands around there. So, it was off to Pittsgrove -- about a 45 minute drive from my Center City home.

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On a rare cool summer day with cloudless blue skies, signs of faith and a faded past stand out against a backdrop of lush fields of corn and soybeans.

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These are soybeans, grown for processing and not likely destined for your local Japanese restaurant.

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It soon became clear that my little trip offered more than simply peaches and tomatoes. Though Salem County would hardly make any Ten Most Beautiful Counties in the Unities States list, beauty was abundant if one simply bothered to look around.

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A colt grazing with its mother. Certainly not horse country, but horses none the less.

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Horses of assorted sizes and shapes.

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Curiosity meets curiosity. If you get out of the car, you can get up close and personal.
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Sometimes curiosity is best served from inside the car. Here is a turkey vulture having lunch by the side of the road.

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Walkers Farm Market was my first stop for no good reason except that I put it first on my list. I made no effort to line up my destinations in any rational sequence. As a result, I occasionally backtracked over the same roads, but they never looked just the same twice. I always noticed different things.

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In season at Walkers modest stand were Jersey peaches, tomatoes, string beans and blueberries. It was not clear which of these were actually grown by the Walkers. The watermelons were from Texas. Assuming there was a Farmer Walker, it seemed to be his teenage daughter holding down the stand. As each trip and associated blog will feature a recipe, I began wondering what the recipe would be for this blog.

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Weaver's Farm Market was next on my list. More substantial than Walker's, the stand included a "garden center" with greenhouses filled with annuals as well a a broad selection of farm-raised produce, carefully signed as "Jersey Fresh" -- meaning farm grown and local , and items marked "Our Own." Weaver's was neatly ordered and run by what I assume were the Mennonite farmer's wife and daughter.

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In addition to fresh produce, one sign expressed: We appreciate our customers being modestly attired. Another provided a prescription for a good life.

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Lovely small beets and a big fat bunch of apple mint caught my eye. These are the sorts of things I like to find at farm stands -- things I am not going to find in my local supermarket.

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Though Maple Acres has had corn from their fields for several weeks, there was little Jersey corn on my pre-July 4th trip. Wojculewski's specialized in corn. No corn, no Wojculewski's.

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This is not precious organic farming country. The parched field in the foreground is the result of weed killing chemicals and not the parching sun. Fields are "cleared" this way, then plowed and re-planted. In the background, adjacent to the woods is a lush green field.

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Only occasionally farms have given way to housing developments as the country yields to echoes of the suburbs.

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As urban roads make way for bikes, these country roads make way for tractors.

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In the background sits a wide bank of solar panels to help cope with future energy challenges.

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As communities develop ways to support and preserve pastures and farmland.

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Both private and public. A "Chosen Freeholder" is an elected representative, here in Gloucester County, north of Salem.

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The wonderful thing about discovery is that when you set-out, you never know what it is that you will discover. The highlight of my trip was meeting Mr. Tkach of Tkach's Farm. Mr. Tkach is 80 years old.

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He was born two years after the farm was established in 1928. At the age of five he began working with his father. He recounted that as a teenager he and his father would take the cart up the road to what was then a German Prisoner of War Camp -- Rommel's Afrika Korps, according to Mr. Tkach, to fetch the garbage to bring back to the farm to feed the pigs. The woods across the road from his farm stand have long-since reclaimed the POW site, but he assured me that the concrete base of the guard tower remains. He told of how the POW's would play soccer all day and when the ball got kicked over the fence, he'd just toss it back.

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This is his field. To the right -- out of the photograph -- is an expansive field of dill weed. To the far left are okra plants. Surrounding the field is a new fence. It cost $6,000 with 1/3 paid for by New Jersey, 1/3 paid for by a government farm program and 1/3 paid for by Mr. Tkach. It's another example of the community commitment to maintain small family farms -- though as he pointed out, the same program is available to New Jersey agribusiness.

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It's not fancy, but it's fresh. And what caught my eye was the basket of beautiful Kirby cucumbers on the right -- the entire basket for $3 and the generous bunch of dill weed for $1.50, already bagged for me in the the yellow bag, partially obscured to the left. I know I did a cucumber recipe for my Maple Acres blog so I couldn't do that again, but I do love pickles and thought maybe I'd make a batch and share an additional cucumber recipe.

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It was at Wm. Schober Sons, that I discovered Peach Cider. The facility wasn't cozy looking as I assume that most of their efforts went into more commercial distribution of their products. The cider came from "Jersey Fresh" Circle M Fruit Farms. It's not exactly fresh crushed apple cider for peach enthusiasts. It is pasteurized and contains "peaches, sugar, water, all natural peach flavorings, and erythorbic acid to promote color retention." I never knew peach cider existed and it's delicious in a somewhat processed way and benefited from a squeeze of lime and a little seltzer -- a peach spritzer.

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Salem's landscape includes orchards like Schober's.

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You could do a nice little book just of just New Jersey farm stand signs -- here across the road from Schober's.

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Deer Apples and Deer Sweet Potatoes are meant to feed deer -- and, my guess, a form of "deer bait" for hunters.

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Along the road backyard farmers pick-up a little extra income with "honor system" stands.

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Some very modest.

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Given that it's peach season in Salem County, peaches ended up as my ingredient of choice for this week's recipe. Early season peaches are "cling," meaning that the flesh clings to the pit. The cling varieties are distinct from "freestones" that begin to arrive in Jersey orchards in August. The flesh of a "freestone" peach separates easily from the pit and so lends itself to recipes requiring attractive peach halves or slices. To remove the flesh from the stone of a cling peach you need to just slice in away with a sharp paring knife. While a pretty peach half from a freestone is perfect for poaching or grilling, cling peach pieces work in things like cobblers, chutneys and butters. The recipe that will accompany this blog will be for Fragrant Peach Butter -- published tomorrow.

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I am new to the wonders of GPS Navigation Systems. Much to my surprise and delight, there is a setting that provides a route that avoids highways. In keeping with the spirit of my journey, heading home on back roads seemed the consistent path. In many respects, the trip home proved of equal -- though dramatically different -- interest as my sojourn through Salem County. As I headed back to Philadelphia, country lanes gave way to suburban tracts and these, in turn, gave way to the gritty industrial corridor of Gloucester City marine terminals along the Delaware River. And then on to scenes of the oppressive urban poverty of Camden, New Jersey.

With a poverty rate of about 10%, Salem County is no Xanadu. Yet at 44%, Camden holds the distinction of the highest poverty rate in the nation! Much like my prior trips were on main highways through Salem County on the way to somewhere else, my contact with Camden has mostly been with the small strip you pass through from the Benjamin Franklin Bridge on the way to anywhere else. Driving through Camden along the river from the south was an eye-opening exposure to block after block of raw urban poverty. The photo above slightly obscures a small vegetable garden planted around the cross in a weed-filled empty lot. The sign reads "Heal Camden." That sign and barren garden seemed more a cry of despair than an expression of hope. Ten minutes later I was in the comfort of my home.

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Here's my Salem County farm stand haul. Back row left to right: Kirby cucumbers, red leaf lettuce, peach cider, cranberry blossom honey, peaches, dill weed and corn (yes, there was some early Jersey corn). In the foreground, scallions, apple mint and beets. All Jersey Fresh.

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As the week progressed, my refrigerator filled with produce without purpose. Purpose was found with an impromptu July 5th dinner I shared with my brother-in-law Larry. A short stroll on Saturday through the Rittenhouse Square Farmers Market had yielded sweet yellow "haricot vert" and a crimson sploached broad beans. These got simply blanched and drizzled with very good olive oil. There were left-over tomatoes from Maple Acres that I tossed with balsamic and cilantro. The big, fat asparagus from Sue's Market were simply grilled and Sue's Lancaster County corn quickly blanched.

My produce "leftovers" were supplemented by a trip to DiBruno's. DiBruno's highlights included large, pickled Spanish anchovies -- a personal favorite, a pate flavored with wild mushrooms and some sliced hard salamis. In the back right is a pitcher of apple mint tea from the bunch of apple mint I found at Weaver's Farm Stand. Earlier in the week Weaver's little beets became a beet and red onion salad, long-since consumed.

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And here are my pickles from Mr. Tkach's farm.

Tkach's Farm Stand
824 Almond Road
Pittsgrove, N.J.

For further information on Salem County Farm Stands.

Next: On the Road: The Trenton Farmers Market and the Farm Stands of Mercer County, New Jersey