Even with industrialization, agriculture remains the only means by which humans can produce food to eat. However, many people overlook careers in agriculture as a viable path.
PHS alum Simon Gabriel '14 took an alternative path of agriculture after graduation. After spending time farming in India, became the manager of Dogwood Farms on the Duke Estate in Hillsborough. He discusses his decision to go into agriculture, the importance and benefits of pursuing a career in agriculture, and his various experiences in the fields. Interview and photos by Caroline Smith
What made you decide to go into food in general?
I liked food, [and] I knew I didn’t like sitting down and studying all day, and there’s always a demand for food. I was always hyper-active, and I got my first job l gardening and farming at Cherry Grove Cheese Farm. That was cool—I got my first taste of hard work, doing a lot of weeding and prepping lavender beds.
After high school I wasn’t ready for college. My grades were terrible in high school, but I knew I had something in me [that] I had to do something if I wasn’t going straight to school. So I signed up for this thing called woofing, which is where you go to [work at] a farm in exchange for room and board. I started woofing 13 miles away from my home. Since then I’ve woofed in India at two different farms. [After starting work at my current farm] I immediately took a liking to my boss and he took a liking to me, so I lived with him and his wife for a year and just farmed with him. He started giving me a stipend, and then now I’m on the payroll and I’m the farm manager.
Why have you decided to go into agriculture?
My passion is food and I have a lot of energy … I like being on the production end of food and I find it fascinating watching a seed grow into something that you harvest. And I like knowing where my food comes from and sowing the soil and growing the animals … It’s much more hands-on. I always feel like when you’re a high-end chef you turn into a diva, but if you’re a farmer you kinda stay grounded.
Do you think it’s better to know your food before you eat it?
Of course. There’s a huge distance between people and food nowadays. So I like to emphasize local over organic. Organic food of course is preferable [to non-organic], because farming is taxing on Mother Nature. So you might as well lessen the harm of the chemicals and till the right ways and be conscious of what you’re doing. But yeah, I feel as though if everyone picked up their food from their farmer they wouldn’t be expecting like strawberries in the winter from Chile … People would be much more grounded. I think it’d be a healthier lifestyle.
What about farming would you like more people to know?
Farming is a basic necessity in this growing population, [and] in any population. Eating is something that you do three times a day or more, and all of your food is from a farm, and [yet] I feel as though there’s really not enough farmers. Most farmers are old guys who have family farms and there’s a lot of young people and a lot of competition and I feel like people don’t really think about farming as a career … I think that farming is just as important, if not more important, than any job you can get.
So would you encourage more people to consider a career in agriculture?
Definitely. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life, though I’m only 20 and haven’t done that much in my life so far. You can be a bad student [or] a great student—I’ve worked with people on the farm who have graduated from Cornell—and you come to the farm and you’re all the same. It doesn’t matter if you have a degree, it just matters if you want to work hard and if you love what you do, because the hours are long. You really have to want to work for it, but it’s very rewarding.
What does your farm do specifically? Any special crops, etc?
So given that we’re in New Jersey, the tomato is very coveted. So we grow a lot of tomatoes, and we produce a lot of salsa and marinara sauce with our surplus tomatoes.And we focus on a lot of kale. For organic farming, kale is a great crop because if you calculate it, it’s the most profitable per acre, [and] it’s a very resilient crop. It stays alive in the winter, and you could feed the kale to the animals. And we also produce a lot of pork.which is Pigs are hilarious—they’re very intelligent animals, they have personalities, and most people don’t see that when they’re buying their meat. Most pigs are really confined in a giant feedlot, where the pigs are on cement their whole lives. It’s interesting to see the right way to do it.
What’s a typical day at work for you each season?
Winter [has] a lot more animal chores, because they’re alive year round. In the spring it’s very busy. We’re preparing our beds, so at the farm I work at there are four people working there: my girlfriend, my boss, the animal manager. So right now we’re focusing on the greenhouse, so I am putting seeds in the trays in the greenhouse and letting them grow.
We also put things in the ground [in the spring]. We’ve been ripping the beds which means breaking up the soil and spreading compost and tilling it, which is breaking up the soil more so it’s an even seed bed, and then direct seeding, which means putting it straight into the ground. And we just started planting our peas, so peas are pretty resilient, they won’t necessarily die in a frost. We’ve been ripping the beds which means breaking up the soil and spreading compost and tilling it, which is breaking up the soil more so it’s an even seed bed, and then direct seeding, which means putting it straight into the ground.
Summer it’s a lot more harvest—most of the crops have come up, so it’s a lot of weeding because we can’t use pesticides, making sure the crops are in good condition and using things such as row covers, which keep plants warmer and protect them from insects. We [also] have a CSA, which is where you buy a share in a farm, so ours is 20 weeks, and you pay $500 to start, and you get weekly shares. So in the summer, it’s a lot of harvesting, getting ready for markets, bringing tomatoes to the place we get it turned into sauce, picking up meat from the butcher. It’s a rat race.
And we always take care of the animals. We just got chickens, and all the lambs are being born and some of them aren’t getting milk from their mothers, so at my house we have two lambs that we’re bottle feeding, which is awesome. They’re better than puppies. They follow you around anywhere. So that’s part of the daily chores. You have to feed them every 4 hours, water the greenhouse twice a day, feed the [other] animals twice a day. And in between all that you have to get the beds ready and plant things.Cultivating, which is like aerating the soil in between the crops, and it’s a way of weeding. An analogy my boss uses is cultivating crops is like blowing on a fire: right when the crop is coming up you want to cultivate, and that will make it flourish.
Can you describe the lives of some of your animals; for example, a pig’s life?
So recently we’ve been starting to breed the pigs.[Once] a pig is born, we let it nurse with its mother, then we wean it, which means taking it away slowly from the milk, and then it’ll be put in a pen on a pasture in the woods. [The pigs] run around their whole lives and they root, which means they dig with their noses and eat the roots. They’re extremely strong. Then, we make sure they’re alive and living well, and then we take them to a butcher. We can’t legally butcher the animals on our property. We can only do that with chickens, I don’t know why. But anyways, we take them to a butcher, they get slaughtered, and they turn into pork chops and bacon.
You spent time farming in India before joining Dogwood Farms. What are some differences between farms here in NJ and farms in India?
The crops, the seasons, the way they work [are all] very different. [In India] they take a lot of breaks, always drinking chai, smoking cigarettes. I mean anywhere, any farm there’s a lot of cigarette smoking. [Farmers there] don’t get paid very well, so they’re more inclined to take breaks if the boss isn’t around. I’d do the same too.
In Northern India they’re growing a lot of fruit trees: guava, mango, pomegranate, peach. They farm in mountains, so their systems of irrigation are very different. Compost is [also] different, because there’s a lot more cows. Everyone has cows in India, so they use a lot of cow dung and manure, which we do in the US, but we don’t use fresh manure as much. There’s no reason for organic food there—people won’t buy organic food—they call it natural farming. There’s no agency certifying people.
In Southern India where I also farmed, there [are] coconuts bananas, [and] a lot of spices like black pepper, nutmeg, cardamom, so it’s a different style of harvest. [They’re] climbing up trees, picking little spices. It’s a very labor-intensive harvest as opposed to a [planting tomatoes], where you’re just picking a half-pound tomato. And so in the US we’re selling our tomatoes for like five dollars a pound; [in India] they’re selling 5 pounds for one dollar. There’s no reason for organic food [in India]—people won’t buy organic food—they call it natural farming. There’s no agency certifying people.
Do you think there’s a difference in quality between the produce in India and the produce in America?
Not really—it’s just cheaper. There’s not as much wealth, or the wealth isn’t as distributed and [the way of life] is very traditional … People eat very traditional foods. Like, [for example], nobody eats avocados. They think it’s disgusting. There’s a couple things that we eat that they just don’t eat unless it’s like [in] a fancy hotel in like New Delhi. What we consider exotic here is not exotic there and vice versa. So a yellow bell pepper there is a very exotic crop, but here it’s kinda commonplace.
What do you think is the most frustrating thing about being a farmer in the modern world?
I’d say one thing that really frustrates me is the fact that we feed our [animals] all organic feed—it’s $37 a bag for organic feed, so it’s extremely expensive. Our competitors don’t feed their animals organic feed [but] they sell at the same price; that really frustrates me. And finding new markets and new people to sell our products to, and just kinda getting our name out there. It’s our fourth year in operation and we’re trying to get our brand out there, because we’re constantly working. So [we] have to do everything, since we only have four people working.
So what do you think is the most gratifying thing?
Growing healthy food for people, feeling confident about our products. [Also], knowing that we put a lot of work into it and [that] it is our best work and someone is buying it and enjoying it and coming back and telling you what they did with it. You get a better understanding of nature, and [people] feel good feeding their families our food … [they] see when things are in season.
And just trying a new crops and having [them] flourish. We’re trying celery and fennel; in India there’s no demand for that stuff. But here, because New Jersey’s so diverse, and there’s a fine food scene developing … And [also] trying new ingredients, and knowing where [the] food is coming from, and cooking with it. I still love cooking.
What’s your favorite restaurant around here?
Mistral [is] a really good restaurant. It use[s] local foods when they can, but it [also] go[es] for the best tasting foods, so if the best tasting foods isn’t local [it]’ll get it from somewhere else. I also like El Chapin on Witherspoon Street—very authentic Guatemalan food. I recommend the chicken guisados: it’s a [special] type of preparation, most tender chicken around. Also the Petit Chef, right next to the Record Exchange; best pastries in the world.
Any advice to kids at PHS wanting to get more involved with food?
Volunteer. We always need an extra hand. It’s how you start farming. It’s how you get interested; you volunteer at a farm and you see what it’s like. You might love it, you might hate it, [and] you might become a farmer because you love it so much—that’s what happened with me.
Support farmers’ markets, buy local foods, tell your parents about CSAs, try to get them signed up, be conscious of where your food is coming from, and appreciate the hard work that’s being put into it.