Go to Von Thun Farms for the sunflowers. Go again to support farmers and grow local foodways

"People think food should look perfect and pretty and not be dinged for dented or have any blemishes, and it should all look the way it does in the supermarket 365 days out of the year. ... Jersey’s produce isn’t always perfect."

Like the birds and the bees, we were called to visit the Sunflower Trail at Von Thun Farms in Washington recently. And we’re glad we did—the sunflowers were magnificent, and rarely can you see so many of the definitively happy flowers in one place. For photos, or just a bit of nature therapy, it’s a great morning or afternoon trip.

“Pictures don’t do it justice,” says Cindy Von Thun, who runs the farm with her husband and son. “I think most people come to take pictures and to be able to say, ‘I’ve been there.’ It’s just another excuse to visit the farm.”

The Von Thun family has passed down land in South Brunswick for over a century, and recently added the Washington acreage in 2015. But even though the generations of Von Thuns have been stewards of their land for decades, and have (obviously) run a successful farm operation, the agritourism ventures (like the Sunflower Trail) are now important in helping the farm make ends meet. Sure, it’s a fun, logical offering for farms and ranches to host events, run classes and other ancillary programs, but, for many, such events are vital to farms’ bottom lines.

“People do support the local farms for [agritourism ventures],” Von Thun says. “But a lot of farms have to do that just to stay afloat, just to subsidize their income, whatever it is.”

If you’ve been to an NJ farm or ranch in the last couple years, at least the ones where you can tour unique features on the grounds, you might be met with an entrance fee. For those of us who grew up going to the local orchard or farm, what have you, without having to pay, it’s a bit of a shock. But, when you talk to farmers and ranchers, a nominal entrance fee (as at Von Thun for the Sunflower Trail) almost feels like… not enough.

There are a ton of hidden costs and labor hours on any farm, particularly those run by families, like Von Thun Farms. Consider the labor involved—it’s just Cindy’s husband, Bob, and their son doing a lot of the work—just in keeping the Sunflower Trail in good shape. 

“This year, the challenge has been the weather and the lack of rain. On a good year, you get the rain and that’s what they need to grow and be strong and tall and germinate and have a nice field,” Von Thun says. “This year … we’ve had very little rain and we don’t have irrigation to irrigate them. Every couple weeks, my husband will plant a new field. You’ve got one field nice that’s pretty and perky, then they start getting seeds. As seeds develop, heads start getting heavier and they start to drop. That’s when the birds come in. You’ve got the bees. It becomes not pretty anymore, though people come through to walk and see the birds and butterflies and stuff. When one is not pretty anymore, you’ve got another field you can move the photo ops into. We’ve been lucky for people to come and visit.” 

And the sunflowers are just ancillary business for the Von Thuns. They also grow apples, berries, corn, pumpkins, and more. But even those core crops require costs we don’t necessarily realize as the consumer. The Von Thun’s South Brunswick farm has, for instance, an irrigation pond, but getting the water to the crops still requires loads of work.

“It just takes its toll. You gotta pay attention to the irrigation gun. You’ve gotta move it or reposition it in the middle of the night,” Von Thun says, adding that her husband and son, “have been irrigating 24/7; that takes its toll, when you don’t take a full night’s sleep. They take turns on who’s going out to move the gun. Plus, there’s the cost of the fuel to run the gun. All of our costs are up this year.”

And so, as Von Thun Farms transition to fall (you can still see the sunflowers through Labor Day in Washington), they’re planning seasonal activities, including a corn maze. One of the themes for this year is No Farmers, No Food; surely you’ve seen the bumper stickers with the same mantra. Von Thun says anything she can do—whether it’s themed activities or conversations at the market—to raise awareness for how critical local farmers are in the food system, the closer we are to strengthening our local foodways.

“We’re big on trying to educate folks; just to bring a little bit of awareness—without the farmers, you’re not gonna eat,” Von Thun says. “Food has been so cheap per se and that’s what people are used to, and now that prices are going up, everyone’s complaining about it. My husband and my son, look at all the work they’re putting in just to keep their crops alive.”

Across various agricultural ventures—milk, meat, produce, etc.—small farmers and ranchers are making minimal profits on their products, in spite of the work put in to grow or raise that food. 

A dry growing season throughout the country has exacerbated issues for farmers and ranchers this year. For instance, ranchers in Texas are selling off and slaughtering cattle at a high rate because they don’t have the requisite water and food to feed them. The average consumer may not realize the stress of those situations, but there are plenty of examples of how the weather and consumer habits affect the way small farms like Von Thun operate.

“Most people come and they’re opening up the tops of ears of sweet corn and leaving the ears of corn that aren’t perfect. Who wants to buy corn that birds have pecked out the top?” Von Thun says.

But the tops of the ears are pecked off because birds are looking for water wherever they can find it. Von Thun says they added a note about the pecked tops in their weekly newsletter, advising folks to simply snip the tops off the corn and enjoy the rest.

“That does raise some awareness, when we can explain things to folks. Why would you let that whole field go to waste?” Von Thun says. Running their CSA program, the Von Thuns are better able to educate consumers about why crops may look a certain way or why they’re more abundant (or not) at a certain point of the year.

But CSA customers are primed to delve into imperfect, but still perfectly edible and nutritious food. Indeed, some people will not buy food that isn’t pristine; Von Thun can reel off many examples. But, as anyone with a home garden knows, sometimes fruits and veggies are ugly, and they’re still OK to eat. Maybe there’s just a different standard for people when they shop in a grocery store.

“You go to the supermarket and most of the supermarkets do a wonderful job with their produce department. People think food should look perfect and pretty and not be dinged for dented or have any blemishes, and it should all look the way it does in the supermarket 365 days out of the year. We’re in a society that wants that perfection, and Jersey’s produce isn’t always perfect.”

But when people buy produce at the grocery store, they’re buying food that has probably lost some of its nutritional value, and certainly its freshness and flavor. And yet, many of us don’t really think about that when we pick up organic broccoli or ripe blueberries from the store; we’re just thinking: they’re fruits and veggies, good enough.

“When produce is harvested, it’s at its optimum as far as nutritional value. You’ve got [produce] from California coming; by the time it gets here, it’s lost a lot of its nutritional value. As it’s sitting on a truck and traveling thousands of miles to get to you it’s losing its nutritional value. People… it’s the last thing they’re thinking about.” 

Getting consumers to make those thought calculations is critical in reversing the ubiquity of factory and commodity farming, and bringing us closer to the local farmers who make our food.

Von Thun is sympathetic to the attention people have to pay to their food in order to start making that switch. And, in truth, for many families, paying more for a carrot or apple, all the time, just isn’t economically feasible. But there is a middle ground we can reach if people connect more closely with their local farmers and ranchers, and once in a while make the choice to visit a couple farm stands instead of the local supermarket.

“The world is just too fast-paced today,” Von Thun says. “People have too many things to worry about and thinking about where their food comes from, they just don’t. Everybody now is worried about keeping themselves afloat, they’re not worried about helping out the local farmer. Some are, but in today’s world, everybody has to worry about their own thing. It’s understandable.”

Look, it’s an ongoing conversation—how to buy more food closer to home, and how to do that without breaking the bank. So if you go to Von Thun Farms in the next few months for sunflowers, pumpkins or the corn maze, maybe ask about how we, as a community, can continue to support the valuable work they do.

Von Thun Farms. Washington and South Brunswick.