Two South Jersey farmers are heading a nationwide network aiming to change the way we grow our food.
By Moira Sheridan | Photographs by Rob Cardillo
Founders Nathan Kleinman (left) and Dusty Hinz.
Vacationers driving to the shore this summer can’t avoid seeing the hand-painted signs in South Jersey that advertise local farm stands. Propped on roadside verges, they beckon customers with gigantic images of tomatoes, sweet corn, cantaloupes, peaches, and all manner of produce harvested from the flat and fertile fields that helped give New Jersey its nickname, “The Garden State.” Less visible to bypassing motorists is a small parcel of land on which two activists are sowing something altogether different: an agricultural revolution. Just off Route 40 near Elmer, New Jersey, Nathan Kleinman, 34, and Dusty Hinz, 29, circle through a field rife with unusual, rare, and heirloom plants. Tall stalks of sorghum wave their seedheads like flags while winter squashes—huge and colorful under a hot August sun—scramble at their feet. Butterflies, birds, and bees swoop and swirl above the tomato, okra, and cowpea plants heavy with fruit amid a jumble of other thriving crops.
The 3-acre tract is part of the Experimental Farm Network (EFN), a nonprofit organization the two men founded in 2014. Its aim is to help combat the effects of climate change by connecting independent growers with plant researchers to preserve, resurrect, and discover sustainable food crops. “Building an open-source plant breeding and research network is the primary goal,” says Kleinman, who, with Hinz, believes conventional farming practices are unsustainable. “Genetically modified organisms (or GMOs), monocropping, industrial tilling, and chemical agriculture not only harm the environment but also treat plants as commodities.”
“Politicians talk about renewable energy,” Hinz adds, “but they don’t talk about how we can’t live like this anymore. I think we need radical changes to develop more agricultural cooperatives and strong regional economies.”
Sally McCabe, associate director of community education at PHS, sits on EFN’s board and has helped the pair find new resources to further their mission. “The fact that they’re developing seeds that grow well in this region is vitally important,” McCabe says. “Finding varieties that do well in Zone 7 is just not something commercial seed companies do anymore.”
In her capacity at PHS, McCabe has introduced EFN to the Community Propagation Program, which is run by PHS and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and grows plants for city gardens at the Fairmount Park Horticulture Center. “The program is going to be using EFN seeds for its community gardens, individual gardens, and individual farms,” she says.
Searching for Lenape Corn
The Experimental Farm Network’s website (experimentalfarmnetwork.org) and Facebook page provide a virtual platform that allows growers and researchers from the United States and other countries to connect with each other, but the Elmer property is the flagship operation, the literal breeding ground for their mission. Hinz and Kleinman farm the land, leased to them rent- free, largely on their own. “Nate’s a plant whiz, while I’m more of a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy,” says Hinz. This year, their fourth season, they
will grow approximately 500 different types of plants—not to sell at local farm markets and grocery stores but to breed, test for yields and hardiness, and harvest their seeds.
The two farmers work with a network of almost 250 growers from around the country, many of whom are home gardeners. “They are tasked with a hugely important job, Kleinman says: “to maintain biodiversity of seeds for the food security of the planet.” Seeds grown by EFN participants are open-pollinated, non-GMO, and organic.
Where to obtain small samples of unusual seeds has, paradoxically, never been a problem. Kleinman, a gardener from childhood, had been collecting seeds for years before he turned to the United States Department of Agriculture when seeking a source for the original corn that had been grown by the Lenape people in this region before the Europeans arrived.
“I wanted to grow this corn,” he recalls, “and thought that I had found a source from a farmer in Ohio, but he was out of it.” This farmer directed Kleinman to the USDA’s National Plant Germplasm System (www.ars-grin.gov/npgs). The seeds in this collection, dating back to the 19th century, come from all over the world. Stored refrigerated or frozen, they are grown out periodically, with fresh seed harvested, so the stocks will remain viable. Seed samples are available to anyone using them for research, breeding, or educational purposes—all categories in which EFN participates.
Searching the site with a variety of keywords, Kleinman found the Lenape corn along with many other amazing plants that he’d never heard of before. “Few people even look at the site, let alone take advantage of the service, so I started biting off more than I could chew, getting more seeds than I could possibly grow,” he says. “That was the genesis of the EFN concept.” He still relies heavily on this vast collection, choosing varieties he thinks will do well in southern New Jersey’s climate and sandy soil.
From South Sudan to South Jersey
For Kleinman and Hinz, the revolutionary nature of their undertaking had appropriately activist roots. They met in 2012, in the aftermath of Occupy Philadelphia. Both men were involved in a subgroup called Occupy Vacant Lots, which Hinz describes as “a kind of guerrilla-gardener/organic-farmer niche; we were a ragtag crew of different radicals and punks and kids. Nate and I were interested in getting out of the city and trying farming on a larger scale,” Hinz adds, and by early 2014, they had 90 flats of seedlings ready to plant but nowhere to go. Then someone saw their Facebook request for available land and put the pair in touch with New Jersey farm owners Chris and Sandy Deitrich. Organic farmers at heart but too busy to work at it, they were looking for help to renew their land, then given over to the growth of mainly hay and deer corn.
Hinz and Kleinman moved onto the property in April of that year, transporting the seedlings from Philadelphia in Deitrich’s truck, which they used as a makeshift greenhouse. They lived out of a tent and an old RV, eating, among other things, the wild broccoli raab that grew around them. ‘Deitrich’s Wild Broccoli Raab’, a strain they’ve bred from that wild form, is now the bestselling seed on their website and a tribute to the landowners’ generosity. The farming methods the two men use are absolutely organic. They till minimally, water sparingly, mulch with hay, and fertilize the crops primarily with compost tea.
Wading through the sunny field in long sleeves and straw hats, Kleinman and Hinz reach for leaves and fruits, tasting and squeezing as they go. In a patch of tall grain, they stop to assess one of their key research plants: sorghum. “It’s considered the fifth most important plant in the world, yet few people realize its agricultural potential,” says Hinz. The stalks can be pressed to make a sweet syrup and are used as feed for animals; the seeds can be ground for flour. Sorghum is also useful as a cover crop, whereby the seeds are harvested and the stalks plowed under to regenerate the soil. It’s one of a number of plants the partners grow for this reason. “All the sugar in sorghum helps build microorganisms in the soil,” he says. Beyond that, it also grows in southern New Jersey without irrigation.
Several varieties of sorghum—a genus of plants in the grass family—flourish on the farm, including popping sorghum (which can be prepared and eaten like popcorn) and a couple of varieties from South Sudan that grew well enough to allow EFN to offer their seed for sale last year. Some varieties are being bred with Johnson grass to potentially develop a perennial strain, and to that end, long rows of sorghum have their seedheads bagged to prevent cross-pollination, which can occur over
an 8-mile radius.
Another double-duty food crop is cowpea (a subspecies of which is black-eyed pea), vital to drought-stricken areas of Africa and Asia for its nutritional value. The plants need no irrigation, resist weeds, and fix nitrogen in the soil. “People should be growing a lot more cowpeas,” says Kleinman. “They’re incredibly productive. Besides the peas, you can eat the leaves when they’re fresh—they taste like arugula but spicier.” To facilitate seed identification later, Kleinman uses a permanent marker to write the variety name on the dried pods as he harvests them.
Seeds for Change
The farmers are particularly proud of their 2016 bumper crop of Nanticoke squash seed. This long-storing winter squash was grown by the native Nanticoke of Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey. “As a landrace—a locally adapted, traditional variety—it’s incredibly diverse in size, shape, and color,” Kleinman says. “You never know what it’s going to look like, but it’s always delicious.” Their tomatoes also had a heavy fruiting year, allowing them to harvest 24 varieties of seed for sale. Among them were Hinz’s favorite variety from Cuba, ‘Rinon Rippled Delight’, and some of the original Campbell Soup Company tomatoes, which might have been lost if they hadn’t been recultivated by EFN.
After just two years on the land, Hinz and Kleinman have been able to start selling seeds to help fund the organization and encourage researchers and growers to become involved. They have sold seeds at the Philadelphia Flower Show and through a few catalog outlets, as well as on their website.
While EFN raises plenty of familiar vegetables, like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, its real drive is to develop perennial strains of plants that require no tilling—an act that releases carbon captured in the soil into the atmosphere. Breeding projects focus on crops including sorghum, perennial legumes from around the world, the elusive perennial wheat, and sea kale. EFN has also partnered with Badgersett Farm in Minnesota, Hinz’s home state, to grow native chestnuts and hazelnuts. “Hazelnuts produce edible oil and could be used in a lot of the ways we use soybeans,” says Kleinman. “Chestnuts could substitute for corn. They are starchy and could be used for animal feed; chestnut flour can also be used as a replacement for wheat flour in a lot of recipes.”
Inspired by their experiences farming in South Jersey and attending numerous conferences during the year, Hinz and Kleinman hope to increase the educational opportunities they offer at the Elmer property, such as hands-on learning seminars for young would-be farmers. “The future will be about education focusing on those crops that perform well,” Hinz says, “and expanding the network of growers and researchers to localized communities.”
“Pushing forward research in new plant varieties and perennial staple crops isn’t something we can do by ourselves,” Kleinman adds. “It will take unprecedented collaboration to make something like that happen.” Collaboration that just may lead to a revolution.
Moira Sheridan, a regular contributor to GROW, lives and gardens in Wilmington, Delaware.
Survivors of War
As part of its mission, the Experimental Farm Network works to preserve seeds from communities threatened by climate change, industrial agriculture, poverty, and war. To that end, EFN has been growing varieties of squash, tomatoes, parsley, peas, peppers, chard, eggplant, and spring wheat from Syria, where various factions have been engaged in a civil war since 2011. The seeds for these plants came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Plant Germplasm System, which provides seeds for individuals and organizations like EFN to use for breeding, education, or research purposes.
Seeds for the vegetables pictured here were collected in the city of Homs, Syria—now a focal point of the civil war—in 1949. “These Homs plants grow very well in southern New Jersey, being well adapted to hot, dry summers,” says EFN’s Nathan Kleinman. By growing these plants, collecting their seeds, and offering them to other breeders and gardeners, EFN is helping to preserve these varieties for future generations of gardeners both here and in Syria.
‘Homs 10’ squash
This variety produces full-flavored, kousa-type fruits that taste similar to zucchini but have skin that matures to white. A vigorous vining plant, it needs plenty of room.
‘Homs 23’ pepper
Its fruits are variable—some simply sweet and others with tongue-tingling heat.
‘Homs 11’ tomato
The flat, deeply ribbed, flavorful fruits of this variety can be made into sauce or cut up for salad; in either case, they need to be used soon after harvest.