Bob and Leda Muth, Williamstown, NJ
|To held build his soil, Bob Muth applies about 20 tons of vegetative matter from municipal leaf collections per acre. |
Photo by Christine Markoe.
Updated in 2005
Summary of Operation
11 acres in mixed vegetables and cut flowers, partly for community-supported agriculture enterprise
Three-quarters of an acre in strawberries sold from a roadside stand
40 acres of hay
Poor soils. Bob Muth farms 80 acres in southern New Jersey on a gravelly sandy loam with a relatively high percentage of clay. It tends to crust and compact if farmed intensively.
Muth grew up on the farm — his father raised crops part time while holding a factory job — but left New Jersey after college to work as a cooperative extension agent in South Carolina. After three years, he returned to his home state to work on a master’s degree.
“One day,” he says, “I looked out the window and realized I’d rather be sitting on a tractor seat than working in a lab, and I’ve never been back.”
Since 1990, Muth has farmed full time. “I hear all this gloom and doom about farming,” he says, “but I like where I am and I wouldn’t change a thing about how I got here.”
With his challenging soil in mind, Muth designs long rotations and makes extensive use of cover crops. Only about 20 percent of his 80 acres is in vegetable crops at any one time. He also adds extra organic matter by spreading the leaves collected by local municipalities on some of his fields each autumn.
Focal Point of Operation - Soil improvement
Muth grows red and yellow tomatoes, red and green bell peppers, ‘Chandler’ strawberries, okra, and smaller amounts of squash and melons. All the crops are set as transplants on plastic mulch and raised with drip irrigation. He’s been experimenting with putting some of the strawberries on red plastic or using super-reflective plastic mulch between the rows. Recently, he tried a few beds of cut flowers under high tunnels.
He markets his vegetable crops to wholesale buyers ranging from “Mom and Pop” groceries to large food distributors. He sells hay by the bale to New Jersey horse farms. He moves strawberries and most of the flowers by selling direct to consumers. And a community-supported agriculture (CSA) enterprise he started, selling weekly boxes of produce to 35 families in its first year, proved a “howling success.” He expanded the program for more families to join and began the certification process to provide those families with organic produce.
Bob’s wife, Leda, does the farm’s bookkeeping and acts as general assistant, while a neighbor manages the hay operation for half a share of the crop. To help with the vegetables, Muth hires four workers from Mexico regularly from April to November and another who comes when needed. He rents an apartment for them year-round, gives them the use of a truck, and helps out with medical care and food. Considering them an integral part of his operation, he gives them a lot of responsibility and plans his plantings with their capabilities in mind.
With about 15 percent clay and a tendency to crust when worked intensively, the gravelly sandy loam soil isn’t the best. “But you can grow excellent vegetable crops on it if you manage it more carefully and add organic matter,” Muth says.
Muth relies on a good sod crop in his four- to five-year rotation. “I have a good notebook,” he explains, “with the fields broken up into half-acre or one acre plots, and the rotation plotted out at least three years in advance.”
At any given time, only about 16 of the farm’s 80 acres is in vegetable cash crops. Recalls Muth, “I heard that one farmer said, ‘Bob doesn’t do anything, the whole farm is in grass,’ but after a few years he started taking notice. Just because what you see is grass doesn’t mean there isn’t a plan behind it.”
In a typical rotation, after the vegetable crop is turned under in the fall, he covers the ground with up to six inches of leaves from municipal leaf collections, about 20 tons per acre. The following spring, he works in the decomposing leaves. If he has spread a thin layer of a few inches, he uses a chisel plow; if he’s applied up to six inches, he’ll borrow a neighbor’s high-clearance plow. Then he plants a hay crop of timothy or orchard grass or both.
The leaves add a variety of nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and calcium. If Muth applies six inches of leaves, the maximum allowed under state nutrient management regulations, it equals 20 tons of dry matter per acre. That influx of organic matter really helps the soil, but at first, the leaves also tie up nitrogen. He doesn’t mind if his hay is a little nitrogen-starved its first year — it’s not his main cash crop — but he really sees benefits in the second year of hay production. After two or three years in hay, he plants a cover crop of rye/vetch or rye alone, and follows it with vegetables the next spring. He also often uses sudangrass as a quick-growing, high-mass summer cover crop to break up compacted soil, suppress weeds and guard against erosion.
Muth did some searching to find the right combination of cover crops. He tried crimson clover, but found it died during cold springs. In seeking an alternative, he came up with vetch. “It was described as a ‘noxious weed’ in some references, so I figured that was just what I needed,” he says. “It wasn’t until afterwards I found out about the SARE program and that vetch was one of the cover crops they were recommending. I can even get some deer pressure on it, but it lies so flat they only graze it down so far.”
According to soil tests, his soil-building program has now given him fields that test as high as 5 percent organic matter, unheard of for the mineral soils of southern New Jersey.
Economics and Profitability
Muth Farm provides for the family’s current needs and also generates enough income to save for retirement. “If you’re running a decent farm, you should be able to do that,” Muth says.
The farm grosses between $150,000 and $300,000. Net profits vary, too, but Muth has been able to gradually build his savings.
Muth rents all of his 80 acres of farmland on a year-to-year basis, except for his family’s home place, which he leases from his father. Even in highly developed southern New Jersey, he finds land available. Some of it his father rented before him.
“Renting has been one of my secrets to success,” he says. “You don’t lock up your cash. You can’t buy land at $20,000 an acre and make it pay, but you can rent it for $40-$50 an acre and be successful.” Muth says it helped the bottom line to buy his equipment “piecemeal.”
“I always put some money aside from the good years, so I could collect interest, not pay it,” he says. The farm carries no debt load.
Comparing his rotation to applying commercial fertilizers, Muth finds the cost about equal but says the slower nitrogen release gives him a much healthier plant.
“Around here, they favor applying 10-10-10 through the drip,” he says. “It’s like a junkie — pretty soon the crop needs another fix.” Crops planted after the cover crop may lag behind those grown with conventional fertilization, but after six weeks, they’ve really caught up and are going strong.
Once primarily farmland, southern New Jersey is now becoming increasingly developed.
“The parcels aren’t contiguous anymore,” Muth says. “We’re working around strip malls and housing developments.”
It’s good for selling crops, but makes environmental concerns more intense. One benefit of his soil building and rotation program is decreased soil and fertilizer runoff. To keep pesticide use down, Muth depends heavily on integrated pest management.
“I know I am using less chemicals than most, and using them more efficiently, only on an as-needed basis,” he says. “And with this rotation, any pesticides are used only on a small part of the farm each year.”
One key benefit of his management program has been disease control, particularly of Phytophthora blight, a major problem in peppers in the area. “We’ve got some disease pressure,” he says, “but nothing like those other guys.”
He’s also noticed that there is a lot of wildlife on the farm.
Community and Quality of Life Benefits
Muth is a leader in sustainable agriculture in his area, often speaking at growers’ meetings, sometimes hosting farm tours. He served on his local agriculture board and the administrative council for the Northeast Region SARE program. He’s also seeing farmers adopt some of his practices.
“Twenty years ago, we started growing sudangrass, just for something to turn in, and no one else was. Now there’s more sudangrass than you would believe.”
By taking municipal leaf collections, he offers an outlet to local towns that can no longer dump leaves in the landfills. While it’s been suggested he could charge for taking the leaves, he feels his gains in good community relations are worth a free exchange.
“A lot of guys farm for the season, but when you start thinking longer term, the way you do things will change,” he says. “Having a good soil-testing program makes it easier — you can track the progress you’re making. This is a lifetime project.”
With a soil-building program and cropping plan that is working well, Muth plans few major changes in the next few years.
“I tend to experiment until I find something that works, then stick with it,” he says.
He plans to expand the raising of flowers under high tunnels, seven-feet-high unheated, plastic-covered mini-greenhouses. In 2000, he had just one 14 x 96 tunnel, and quickly found out that ventilation was an issue. The arched tunnels feature vent rails that run along the side of the tunnel three feet off the ground, but he wants to move that higher for greater air flow.
Next year, Muth plans to have seven or eight tunnels, planning the crop so the flowers come in at the same time as strawberries in the high-demand months of May and June.
Profile written by Deborah Wechsler
For more information:
Bob and Leda Muth
1639 Pitman Downer Road
Williamstown, NJ 08094