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Food Incubator in Northern NJ Could Help Keep Farmers Down on Farm

Creating a flexible, responsive collective for farmers can help them meet the specific challenge facing agriculture in the Garden State

Credit: Jane Primerano
Each municipality in Sussex County has a historical banner at the Sussex County Farm and Horse Show. Andover Township highlights its farming heritage.

For years, a Sunday drive through Sussex County meant looking at Golden Guernseys munching on sweet alfalfa and stopping at any one of dozens of farmstands. In Warren County stately English barns presided over rolling farmland nearly uninterrupted from Hackettstown to Phillipsburg.

Today, farms remain, but they are outnumbered by center-hall Colonials and faux-Victorians with mini-vans in every driveway. The thriving agricultural community has morphed into a challenge for the small-scale farmers who remain.

One way to keep farmers on the farm and attract young farmers is to create a food incubator, a collective for farmers that can be geared to the specific needs of a particular group or a specific location, according to Kendrya Close, executive director of the Foodshed Alliance. The alliance’s mission is vital not only to farmers but also to everyone in the state: local food is healthy food and open spaces help protect the water supply and keeps the air clear.

Headquartered in a former bank building on Blairstown’s Main Street, the alliance runs the Blairstown Farmers’ Market, the Morris County Winter Market, and numerous programs for farmers and the community, including Farm to Fork dinners and educational programs.

“We need to think outside the farmers’ market model,” Close said, “That’s already saturated.”

jim taller
Credit: Jane Primerano
Jim Thaller explains how a food incubator can help New Jersey.

On the incubator project, Close has the assistance of Jim Thaller, a Blairstown resident who is head of agricultural development for the World Bank, and Ben DelCoro, a founder of the Sparta Farmers’ Market. The three presented their ideas to a roomful of farmers and interested residents at Crystal Springs, a sprawling condominium complex in Hardyston Township, just south of the Mountain Park ski areas that is often cited as a symptom of the changing landscape of Sussex County.

At the presentation, Thaller explained that New Jersey farms are small by most farming standards, partially because of the extremely high property values in the state, exploring some of the many ways a food incubator can help these small-business people survive in tough economic times.

Age is a factor

One way that New Jersey farmers don’t stand out is their age. The average age of a farmer globally is 57; in New Jersey, it’s 59. Thaller said “we need to promote young farmers, need to show them a valid business model.”

With much of his work abroad, he said he hadn’t thought about starting an incubator in New Jersey until DelCoro approached him with a loose business plan.

Services provided by a food incubator can include sales, marketing, branding, production and warehousing, management training, financial management, networking, and technical training, according to Thaller. DelCoro noted that farmers often need help in establishing a brand, labeling, packaging, creating a logo, and using social media for marketing.

In addition, Thaller pointed out, bringing farmers together in a collective enables them to source materials more efficiently. They can also join in distribution through farm markets and distribution centers.

Bringing World Bank Insight and Expertise to Farmers in Northern NJ

Jim Thaller is equally at home developing a food incubator in sub-Saharan Africa as he is putting one together in Sussex County -- with good reason

Jim Thaller has been mentoring farmers for a long time, generally on the other side of the world from his Blairstown home. With a background in food processing and product development as well as entrepreneurial development, he is well suited to take his mentoring on the road as senior agri-buisness advisor for the World Bank.

Now, he is bringing his expertise to the Garden State to help farmers here adapt to the changing agricultural world.

Thaller and a small team travel between 40 percent and 50 percent of the time and work with local teams to create food incubators all over the world.

“It’s a balancing act,” Thaller said in a recent interview. His group starts by assessing the ability of the local farmers and entrepreneurs to create a successful business plan and sell their product at a steady profit.

“We ask ourselves, does this business idea makes sense? Then we do a deep dive, get deeply into the business and the opportunities,” he said.

Much of the World Bank work is in sub-Saharan Africa where the laws aren’t necessarily in favor of small entrepreneurs, especially when they are female.

“Women play a significant role in agriculture and agri-business,” he noted, and the World Bank does have a separate program for women entrepreneurs.

For example, in Tanzania, a woman-owned company processes and sells sunflower oil. Sunflowers are a huge crop in that country with about 260,000 farmers, Thaller said.

Farm markets are a significant factor in economic development in many of the countries Thaller works with. The World Bank uses the South African model, which basically joins together to provide infrastructure and promotion, to help other countries develop their farmers markets.

“They have a fabulous model, a national Farm Market Network Alliance,” he said. Many of the markets have events and music and do advocacy for local farming. “Customers find common ground with farmers,” Thaller said, “they know what they are buying and why they’re buying.”

One of the biggest farmers’ markets is in Kathmandu with 1247 vendors. Thaller said the vendors produce “everything, including the best Brie in the world, made by a French expat.”

After all these exotic locals, northwest New Jersey may seem a little tame, but Thaller chose Blairstown as the place he wanted to raise his daughter, so he is committed to helping his local farmers.

New Jersey, has no Cottage Food Law, which allows small producers to use home appliances to bake, cook, can, pickle, dry, or candy low-risk foods. A food incubator can provide a commercial kitchen for farmers who want to process food that is not sold while fresh.

New Jersey is the only state without such a law, but a bill is before the legislature now. In addition, according to Thaller, there are commercial kitchens, such as those at Sussex Technical School and the community colleges that could be used if necessary.

“Too much crop is left in the field,” DelCoro said. “A food hub (another term for incubator) can turn that into value.”

In addition, a commercial kitchen or processing center can be used for other crops, such as barley, hops, and hazelnuts. A commercial facility can include a shelling machine for hazelnuts that are already being grown on a Rutgers agricultural experiment station and are a promising crop for New Jersey.

Marketing savvy

“We live in the largest market in the country, but the awareness of the abundance of local food is lacking.” There is not enough education about local and regional food,” DelCoro said, advocating for an incubator for promotion.

Whether a food incubator is a practical solution and exactly how it should be configured is the topic of a series of seminars presented by the Foodshed Alliance along with Thaller and DelCoro.

Thaller’s experience is in setting up food incubators primarily in the Third World, but he said the process of designing one is always the same.

“It’s a numbers game,” he said.

In the U.S., he explained, sometimes farming is a lifestyle choice rather than a necessity. Those farmers don’t need the assistance of a food incubator. A food incubator is for those who are looking for growth.

“About 7 percent of any population is growth-oriented entrepreneurs,” Thaller said. These are the people who can use an incubator.

“The first thing most people ask for is money, but that’s not what they need,” Thaller said, adding, “I don’t like giving out money.” He explained services or someone to share services with is far more important to farmers and their risk is minimized when they worked together.

crowd shot
Credit: Jane Primerano
Farmers and other interested residents of Sussex County and its northern New Jersey environs gather in a conference room at Crystal Springs in Hardyston to hear a presentation about food incubators.

Thaller acknowledged to the audience that agriculture is a risky business by nature but a food incubator can help to minimize the risk in many ways. But, he cautioned any food hub is only as good as the network that supports it. “You need to know everyone in your network,” he said.

He also explained the options for revenue. While university incubators are free, Thaller doesn’t advocate that model, “a government employee won’t help you run your business,” he said.

Thaller presented several alternatives for funding a food incubator. Some incubators are set up on a royalty structure, others on the people running it having equity in the farms. Still others are fee-based or a combination of all three.

In his extensive experience, Thaller has come to prefer the royalty method, in which investors receive a portion of the profit each season. “It’s based on growth, the people who run the incubator are paid a percentage.” The equity model is popular with startups, he added.

In a telephone interview, Thaller acknowledged “an incubator won’t be everything to everyone.”

DelCoro said there are 12 regional food hubs within 100 miles of Sussex County, six in New York State and six in Pennsylvania, including incubators in the Bronx, the Hudson Valley, and Philadelphia. He advocates a food hub in Warren and Sussex counties in New Jersey because they are roughly the same distance from the markets in New York City as the Hudson Valley, with the same relative wealth. However, the same process could be used to investigate the feasibility of a food incubator in another part of the state.

The Foodshed Alliance has taken its show on the road, meeting with farmers around the northern New Jersey area. If the enthusiasm is there, Thaller said, he will take a “deep dive,” to determine the chances of an incubator succeeding. “We need to find out everything before we can go for broke,” he said.

In the interview, Thaller described the process he uses in developing an incubator for the World Bank. He said it can take two and a half years, including working with the government of the country where the incubator is to be located. In the U.S., states have much of the jurisdiction over selling fresh produce. Local government may have zoning regulations that need to be met. Once that is done, the process includes analyzing the business climate, the primary agricultural crops, how competitive agriculture is in the region, and other pertinent facts.

“Once we have the answers,” Thaller said, “we invite people to workshops and we look for growth-oriented people, 7 percent to 10 percent of the farming population.”

He, along with DelCoro and Close, hope those people can be found in northern New Jersey.

Jane Primerano is a veteran independent journalist currently specializing in agriculture and agri-business. She has worked as a reporter, photographer, and editor for both legacy and digital publications. Active for several years in the Society of Professional Journalists, she is now Regional Director for the Mid-Atlantic and New English region of SPJ.

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