A crew of Cape May County Technical High School's Agriscience and Horticulture Technology students recently spent the afternoon planting apple trees on Warren Stiles' sixth-generation family farm in the Dias Creek section of Middle Township.
"When people think of the Jersey Shore, they either think of the show, "Jersey Shore," or they think of the beach, but we actually have a lot of farmland here," said Cape May Tech junior student Sydne Hunter, of Clermont, as she stood in the middle of the newly planted apple orchard.
Stiles is a retired Cornell University professor who has spent more than four decades researching and teaching fruit-tree production and is world-renown for his apple research. After retiring in 1999, Stiles, 79, returned to his family farm, where he was raised, to begin a full production you-pick fruit farm. Prior to his return, the land hadn't been farmed in 50 years.
"It's been work, work, work," said his wife, Sally, of preparing the land for production, which included reclaiming several acres that been taken over by woods. Seventy-seven acres are in production.
Sally assists Warren in the daily farm operation, along with Warren's son, Matthew, of Binghamton, N.Y., who plans to retire in the next few years to work full-time on the farm with his father.
The Stiles' plan is to create a you-pick farm where community members and visitors can come to pick their own produce right from the land.
"We wanted to put the farm back into its original state so we could produce fruits and vegetables to sell it to local farm markets and community members," Sally said.
During the past two or three years they've produced blueberries, blackberries raspberries, rye and orchard grass, selling the berries to local farm markets and the rye and orchard grass to local horse owners.
This summer, for the first time, they will offer a you-pick blueberry season from late July to early August.
In the past few weeks, they've also begun planting their apple, peach and pear orchard, which will be you-pick once it produces fruit, in about two to three years.
On April 11, the Cape May Tech students helped plant apples trees.
"This was my great grandfather's apple orchard," said Stiles, as he stood in the field watching the students plant neat rows of apple trees, of many varieties.
Also watching the students, Sally Stiles said she's surprised by how hardworking and knowledgeable they are about farming.
"There's a lot of talent in those kids," she said. "They're hard workers. They know horticulture, and they're just doing a great job. They're not fussing. They're just delving into it, no problem at all."
Cape May Tech Agriscience and Horticulture Technology teacher JoAnn Sopchak said her goal as a teacher is to instill an appreciation for farming in her students.
"Our society today doesn't realize the importance of agriculture unless they are out there on the farm with their hands in the soil," she said. "They can't connect what they eat with somebody like Dr. Stiles. Even if my students don't go into agriculture on a post-secondary level, they will appreciate agriculture, and that's what's important."
Hunter said that in the few hours she spent on the Stiles' farm, she gained a deeper appreciation for farmers.
"Next time I eat an apple, I'll enjoy it a little more," she said. "I can't imagine doing all this myself."
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