MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Looking out over a field of low brush and wildflowers, Denise South sees hope. And a turkey.
At the far end of the field, a skinny head peaked up above the scrub like a periscope keeping an eye on the rare visitors to a farm off Swainton-Goshen Road in a rural corner of the township. South said she often sees the birds and other wildlife at the farm.
“They love it here. They like to peak their heads up and see what we’re up to,” she said.
The farm has lain fallow for about two years, long enough for the weeds to run wild and the wild turkeys to make themselves at home. South, director of the homeless advocacy organization Cape Hope, does not expect another fallow year.
She envisions homeless clients of Cape Hope who have received housing assistance working the farm. She also plans to work with other nonprofits to use the farm for job training. She said an experienced farmer who has worked with similar programs has agreed to run the farm and plan out what to plant.
The owner of the farm, known as the Bruised Reed Farm, has agreed to let Cape Hope use the land for its clients and others to farm the property, both as job training and to raise money and fresh produce to supplement their diets.
South said the owner wants to remain anonymous.
The farm is about five acres. In the far corner, a stand of blackberries shows green fruit, but most of the other rows are completely overgrown.
The first step will be to find a volunteer with a tractor who can plow the fields.
“I’ve put the call out,” South said.
She said she is trying to launch the project as cheaply as she can, relying on volunteers where possible.
The Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Cape May County has agreed to test the soil. The site has electricity and running water for irrigation.
There is a greenhouse on site that may allow for some early crops in future years. South still hopes to put in a late-season crop this year, with the potential for harvest in September. That could mean planting carrots, kale or cucumber in the short term, with the potential for peppers, zucchini, tomatoes and other New Jersey farm stand staples next year.
In the longer term, she hopes to have a flock of chickens for fresh eggs and get a hive of bees into the long-vacant bee boxes on the site, offering both pollination and honey.
The Cape Hope clients would be volunteers on the farm. She said they would not be paid beyond the housing assistance they already receive.
“We know that getting homeless people in housing is not enough,” she said. People need housing, education and work, what she described as a tripod.
Those working the farm will get a share of the harvest, she said, which will mean a healthier diet. She also hopes to build partnerships with area farm-to-table restaurants and those who sell produce at farm stands and the growing number of farmers markets in the area to bring in some income.
On a steamy weekday afternoon, South was met at the farm by Cape Hope board members Barbara Allison, of Erma, and Kit Marlowe, another Lower Township resident who heads up Cape Hope’s capital projects committee.
Marlowe said he worked on the taxes of the owner of the field. She made about $50 a year from working it, he said. But she had promised her father to keep the land a farm. He suggested offering Cape Hope the use of the land.
At the front gate, a sign quotes Isaiah 12:3, which reads “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”
At the June 18 meeting of Cape Hope’s Board of Directors, members signed a contract with the farm’s owner to use the land. The farm had a previous agreement with another nonprofit, but that work stopped years ago.
Agricultural work is tough, often uncomfortable in the extreme and does not pay well. Is this the best kind of on-the-job training, especially in a county where food service jobs are plentiful each summer? South said her organization plans to work with what it has available.
“It’s what we had offered to us. We haven’t been given a restaurant yet,” South said. “We also know that hard work is part of life. We’re going to use what God has given us.”
Some work has already taken place. Allison said she spent time with her husband that week working on the PVC pipe for the irrigation system, and on a recent visit, South, Allison and Marlowe wrestled with the fence that once kept deer out of the fields, which was now lying on the ground and overgrown with plants.
South described the land as a godsend and said she would make certain the land gets planted and harvested. She said there is peace at the farm. The nearby road sees little traffic and there is not a house in sight. Walking along the perimeter, she said quietly, “It’s going to take a lot of work. But it is doable. All things are possible through Christ, amen.”
Later, she added, “We are accepting help.”
Those interested in volunteering, or anyone with a tractor willing to plow the field to prepare it, can call 609-997-1794.