In August, New Jersey farm stands are a thing of beauty - colorful and fragrant. The eggplant are a deep, rich purple, the melons are sweet, the peaches perfect, and the tomatoes, oh, the tomatoes! Simply put - they're outstanding. But after all, we are the Garden State, aren't we? It wasn't too long ago when New Jersey was better known for its stellar produce, than it was for outrageously misbehaved Housewives and debauched Jersey Shore revelers.
In an effort to procure, and consume, some of our local earthly gems, I took a trip to the last real farm in Essex County. Surprisingly, I only had to travel four miles to get to Matarazzo Farm in North Caldwell. It is currently run by Jim Matarazzo and his wife, Jeannie. It takes but a few moments to realize that Jeannie is the driving force behind maintaining the daily operations on the farm and at the farm stand. Jim, former mayor of North Caldwell, seems to occupy the background with the air of a sage; observing and listening, letting Jeannie man the helm.
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I spoke with the Matarazzos about the difficulties local farmers face pleasing the typical American consumer. A little tale about watermelon best explains the situation. At the farm stand, Jeannie offers samples of cubed watermelon. While customers enjoy the cubed fruit, they do not want to buy the whole watermelon simply because they do not want to cut it up. Supermarkets, on the other hand, do sell prepared produce. Even though the melons sold in supermarkets were often picked comparatively long ago, in a place far away, the American consumer will sacrifice quality in the name of convenience.
Matarazzo Farms is a family business dating back 90 years. In 1906, Jim's paternal grandmother, Philomena Pascal arrived in Hoboken at the age of fourteen. She married an arborist, Constantino Matarazzo. In 1920, after owning farms in Branchville and Livingston, the couple settled in North Caldwell, where they raised 13 children, including, Joe, Jim's father. Of his grandparents, Jim speaks highly, "They did it all. They were self-sustaining." All 13 children went on to own their own businesses, and Joe took over the family farm.
Joe then married an Irish-American woman, Midge, and raised three children near the family farm in a house on Mountain Avenue in North Caldwell.
It was not Jim's intention to become a farmer. He graduated West Essex Regional High School in 1964, and went on to attend Villanova University, where he studied education. After graduating Villanova in 1968, Jim stayed on at the family farm for the summer, and never left. But that's not to imply that Jim is not a "teacher." Each summer he hires college students to work the farm, teaching them agriculture, and the realities of life.
The operations at Matarazzo Farm have been scaled back quite a bit, as Jim was forced to sell off much acreage, leaving only five acres of farmland. "We're more of a road show now," says Jim. The Matarazzo farm stand is supplemented with produce from sister farms in Jersey. At the North Caldwell farm the Matarazzos still grow arugula, basil, cut flowers, assorted herbs and a few unusual varieties of tomatoes. The family operates a 390-acre farm in Belvedere, N.J. where Jim grows apples, fall crops and pumpkins.
While we were visiting, Jim's granddaughter Gabbi was filling buckets with water and bustling around the farm stand. "She's a little Matarazzo," Jim said with pride, and perhaps a little hope that someday she'll take over the family operations. Let's hope.
So what do you think Baristaville? Have we forgotten that we live in the Garden State? Is the American consumer lazy? How frequently do you visit local farm stands?
Also published at www.baristanet.com/foood