HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — The Liepe Farms Stand on Cologne Avenue got a late start this year, thanks to weather and deer.
"Our season usually opens late July. This year was the beginning of August. That's how hard the deer hit us," Jessica Liepe, 21, who works at the stand most days — except on Thursday when she takes the family's produce to farmers markets.
"The deer annihilated everything," Jessica said. "We have 100 to 200 per night in the fields."
The family grows almost all of what it sells on just 80 of its 1,200 acres here, where it has been farming since 1863. It has an agricultural permit to shoot the deer. But that would be another big job for an already overtaxed family that runs the farm on its own, she said.
"It's just me, my dad, and my sister — my other sister works for the township and my brother for the Forest Fire Service," Jessica said. "I pick and my other sister picks. We weed everything."
Liepe Farms grows and sells all kinds peppers, melons, eggplant, potatoes and sweet potatoes, and is best known for its tomatoes and sweet corn, Jessica said. Its latest season crops are sweet potatoes and pumpkins.
But just growing produce isn't enough today. The farm has expanded into raising about 800 pigs, a dozen cows and a food recycling operation. It picks up food scraps from food stores, some casinos and other businesses, heats it in special trucks and feeds it to the pigs, she said.
They also have to irrigate almost every day in really hot weather.
"The sun is so hot," Jessica said. "My dad says summer was never like this."
Her season of intense work will end in mid- to late October.
"My Pop-Pop is open later, he has fall crops," Jessica said of her grandfather Arnold Liepe, 88, who has his own farm stand nearby on Leipzig Avenue.
Many Liepe regulars are also customers of Arnold's farm stand, she said.
Fred Elentrio, of Brigantine, drives quite a way to buy produce at Liepe's, he said.
"I like that it's family-owned and operated, and love the tomatoes and corn," Elentrio said.
Carol Tomasello only drives from Mays Landing, but the former teacher has been going there "forever," she said. She taught most of the Liepe kids in various grades, she said.
Jessica said the farm stand gets repeat visitors from as far away as Connecticut and Florida, who return when they are in the area.
"I'm seventh generation. I love it to an extent, minus the hectic parts like things that go on with the deer," Jessica said of farming and running the farm stand.
Her favorite part is building relationships with regular customers, many of whom have been coming to the stand longer than she has been alive.
"They see me grow, and I see them growing older," Jessica said.
"I'm a regular. I knew all these kids when they were tiny," said Marianne Garabedian, of Blue Heron Pines in Galloway Township, as she shopped recently. "When I had change I would give it to the kids."
Garabedian said many of her neighbors wait eagerly for Liepe's to open every year.
"They are wonderful people, they really know their customers," Garabedian said. "I come to get my caprese salad every day."
The stand also sells peaches, nectarines and apples, but only grows some tree fruit. It mainly sells fruit grown by Joe Nichols in Franklinville.
Jessica had a break from farm work when she played high school and college softball, she said.
"Dad gave us the option of sports or working the farm," Jessica said. "My sister played for Stockton and I played one season at Rowan College at Gloucester County. Now my focus is school — I'm going to Atlantic Cape Community College studying liberal arts."
Living on a farm with lots of outbuildings and plenty of space came in handy, she said. When she was a kid, her dad lowered the floor in the potato barn next to the farm stand, and installed a softball batting cage. He put in a basketball court for another sister.
It's a potato barn because it stays so cool all the time, she said.
"And here's a tip. Always keep dirt on potatoes," Jessica said. Wash them right before use. "They store better that way."
She is hopeful the farm stand opens next year.
"It's up to Mother Nature, weather and the deer," she said.