ranging hens that greeted us the last time we visited. A purist in regards to how free roaming chickens should be raised, Flipside Farm’s manager and co-owner, Taylor James, is also a realist when it comes to having a farm amid a sylvan oasis.
“I don’t want to sacrifice the quality or my ideals about how they should be raised out in the field,” James told us. “If I can’t let them (the chickens) free roam then I won’t do it.”
The foxes, however, have done nothing to deter the farm’s plump and blissful pigs, who enjoy their woodsy, pastoral life under the watchful eye of Basil, a rowdy, young Maremma; a sturdy, white-coated Italian dog breed specialized in guarding livestock (this is also bear and coyote country).
Compact and muscular with dirty blonde hair and a sun-bleached beard, Taylor James has the unburnished, bronze air of someone who has been working out in the seasons for most of his life, but Taylor’s path to the backwoods acres of Bedminster was an evolutionary journey. A native of rural North Florida, Taylor ultimately credits his grandmother, Ellen, for his calling to the agrarian life. A gardener and traditional southern cook, her garden-to-table fare of southern comfort food “planted the seeds” in James’ collective memory that would eventually beckon him back to the soil.
“This whole farming, food operation was because of my grandmother,” he told us. “We had a garden, I was growing, beans and greens… She cooked fried green tomatoes, okra, grits... To this day, I absolutely adore Southern food. That’s comfort to me.”
The transformation that led Taylor back to his connection with Grandma Ellen’s garden, began when he left his boyhood red county in Florida for the blue-blooded halls of Yale University, where he graduated with distinction.
“I studied the ‘very practical’ disciplines of Classical Civilization and History of Art. Very applicable to farming,” he quipped.
After college, Taylor joined the corporate merchandising program at Abercrombie and Fitch.
“I’m a confused kid. I don’t know what to do after I graduate… frankly, the reason I took the job was so I could wear flip flops every day to work,” he said.
But according to Taylor, that’s where “the change” started to happen. His sister, Alison, introduced him to a documentary film that got him thinking about the relationship of industrialized farming to the demise of family farms and its effect on what we eat. At the same time, he was heavily involved in a local gym, where he cross-trained for weight lifting and running events, and became embroiled in a friendly, but intense, competition with his best friend. Frustrated that he was training just as intensely but still couldn’t seem to gain on his opponent, Taylor began looking at his diet to gain a competitive edge.
“It all simultaneously came about when I was being awakened to this new notion of the food system,” he told us. “I met this lady and she would source meat from all these local farmers who were doing grass fed, pasture-raised livestock productions. So I’d get things like, a leg of lamb or a whole chicken. I didn’t even know how to cook a chicken. I was learning this whole time... Then I joined a vegetable CSA and I would go to the farmer’s market to round out my produce. I joined the two co-ops in town… I bought part of a goat so I could get raw goat milk on the sly. My life became so involved and engrossed with the food… and I was so excited about that in conjunction with fitness that at one point I was like, ‘why am I wasting my time fighting this?’ I should just be doing what I think I want to be doing and that is finding my role in the food system.”
“So at one point, we were at this big quarterly meeting and I was snooping around on Woof and Good Food Jobs for some sort of apprenticeship, any opportunity, and I had made my decision, regardless of if I got promoted or not, that the next day, I was going to walk into HR and give my two weeks.”
Taylor found the opportunity he was looking for along the east bank of the Housatonic River, at Longmeadow Farm in Cornwall, Connecticut, a bucolic town with a population of around 1,500 people with one of the last covered bridges in the state. As the new farm assistant, Taylor helped with the raising and care of livestock, which included heritage-breed pigs, lambs, Black Angus cattle, and laying hens.
“It was a total 180. I’m sitting at a desk one day. Drive out to CT the next, and the following morning, I’m feeding animals.”
Moving on to serve an apprenticeship as an assistant farm manager at an operation in Chesterfield, New Jersey, Taylor spent the next four years immersed in the soil, learning every aspect of sustainable farming from seed germination to CSA distribution.
“My education was 100% practical, hands-on learning experience,” he said.
Partnering with landowners, Brian & Meredith Lehman of “Just Farmed,” a locally grown fresh farm box delivery company in Westfield, Taylor was introduced to the 100 acres that he would dub Flipside Farm, a wink to the alternative lifestyle he opted into after eschewing the corporate world (although he still wears the flip flops on occasion).
“I came up this way and was looking for farms,” Taylor explained. “I saw everything from farms with every barn and tractor and piece of equipment and packing sheds, to places like Flipside, which had nothing but a well-head. Brian and Meredith aligned with the vision that I wanted to make happen, so at the end of the day, that’s why I chose this place, and it turned out to be very advantageous.”
“It took a little bit of artistic vision to plot out the fields & the greenhouse,” he said. “But I worked with the land, slopes, and geography to carve out a field plan during the fall before our inaugural growing season. Having had prior experience cultivating new land certainly aided in this endeavor. Once I laid the plan, it was a matter of mowing, disking, rock-picking, cover cropping, composting, chisel plowing and rotating before we could plant the first crop of spring 2016...onions!”
Flipside now offers a wide variety of vegetables that include 60 main crops in over 200 varieties.
“Diversity is our insurance policy and our CSA members have seen that,” Taylor told us. “Last year, beets were not that great, but we had spring turnips and fall turnips, and other things that sort of filled the gap.”
Taylor aspires to provide the community with the highest quality vegetables, that aren’t just healthy for his customers, but are healthy for the planet. Everything is grown using the latest organic methods and sustainable practices to promote an ecologically sound environment and foster a carbon-neutral farm operation.
“I’ve sort of been struggling with the word, sustainability,” said Taylor. “It’s a trendy word that people throw out. Obviously, we’re an organic farm so we don’t use petroleum-based fertilizers, we don’t use chemical pesticides. We are really trying to improve not just the soils, but the whole ecology of the farm. It really does start with the soil and when you hear the word sustainable agriculture, a lot of notions jump up in people’s heads: organic practices, composts, manures, crop rotations, cover crops. We are right there - that is what we are doing. Growing organic matter. But I think the kind of true measurement of sustainability is how much carbon you are sinking. Try to be as carbon-neutral as possible.”
Improving the ecology of the farm at Flipside includes plantings that nurture the area’s biodiversity, and provides a setting for pollinators to flourish.
“Not only do we have fields of vegetables, but we have a hay field, and there’s a plot of corn and we have sorghum planted down in the middle with perennial grasses and annual crops for…the deer (unfortunately), and a couple of different grass and legume species out in the field. It’s important to have not just a field of corn. If there is a massive diversity of flora out in the field, and in the surrounding woodlands, that will, in turn, support biodiverse farms… We grow a lot of things that flower for pollinators; not only bees but for beneficial insects, for birds … It’s pretty incredible. In the middle of summer, they are everywhere.”
One of Taylor’s favorite flowering plants is Anise hyssop, a sweetly aromatic plant with edible flowers and leaves that have a licorice-mint flavor.
“Every time I go out to pick it, I get stung by a lazy bumble bee that collides with me,” said Taylor. “In the middle of summer, the bees look drunk.”
When he first began harvesting, Taylor’s initial customers were his fellow “gym rats.”
“When I first got here, I didn’t know anyone. I don’t have ties here. My family is not here. I don’t know anyone. So, how do you start a direct market produce operation? If you recall me talking about my best friend from Ohio, with our competitive natures. We kind of split from the company around the same time. What he did was way more profitable route of learning to run gym businesses. He ended up opening up a couple of gyms in Hoboken and NYC and they were our first customers.”
Since then, locals have discovered Taylor and Flipside Farm and his CSA program is thriving and he has also made his produce available at local, bustling farmer’s markets, like the Bedminster Market held at River Road Park.
“The folks that come out on Saturday, they bring the whole clan. Dogs, kids are out in the fields helping mom pick snow peas. It’s fabulous,” said Taylor. “I harvest everything that’s ready and available out in the fields and I put everything on the table. Depending on your share size, you take however many items on the table that you want. It’s kind of free choice. In addition to that, there are some crops out in the field that I just do not have the time to harvest that can be picked by CSA members, like cherry tomatoes, green beans, snap peas, flowers.”
“If I’m growing 60 different crop varieties, I think it’s partially unrealistic, at this juncture to say, I’m going to grow apples and pears and peaches… if we were able to coop within the local community and have more collaboration so that each individual farm still has its diversity but is able to pool resources and markets together to be able to offer fully comprehensible offering at a farm stand or at a farmer’s market. The biggest missing links - we have local produce, we have local fruit, but it would be great to bridge the gap with local grains. Think about how many celiac problems you could solve if you had local, organic grains. And also dairy, small dairy needs to come back.”
Taylor has discovered his role in the food system and he doesn’t just want to change the way we eat, he wants to change our entire food culture to bring back small farms that grow food naturally and support one another in what he calls, “the collective power of local sustainable agriculture.” He’s sharing his vision with others, who are just as excited about the emerging trends in sustainable farming, during his farm apprenticeship programs.
“My idea in the beginning was to start this farm from scratch and to have a model that basically says, ‘You can do this. You can make a living so you can pass this on to more folks…’ It’s crazy to think, but it’s paying it forward. I’ve done this apprenticeship program ever since year one because that was how I learned and that’s how I’m going to pass it on, too. It’s a little bit different every year, but the idea is, you come for a full season and you do everything here on the farm. You literally get your hands dirty with every single aspect of what it takes to grow food; seeding in the greenhouse, hand-weeding carrots, harvesting tomatoes, running the CSA stand, learning how to drive a tractor, feeding pigs, everything. You get exposed to all this and that’s the way to learn. I’m more than flattered that a lot of my former, past employees have gone and continued on in the food system.”
“It’s going to be a slow change, but if folks are demanding, more and more, the organic food and grains, I think farmers will rise to meet them there. I think it’s up to consumers to keep the demand going and to keep the small farmers in business to make more small farms possible. I’m convinced that folks, in this area, are catching on and I think that will lead to a lot of potential in the future.”
Flipside Farm is located at 1500 Larger Cross Road in Bedminster, NJ. To learn more about Taylor James and Flipside Farm, visit flipsidefarm.com or stop by and see them at the Bedminster Farmer’s Market, open every Saturday from 9 am - 1 pm, through October, at River Road Park, 3055 River Road, Bedminster, NJ.
Folks Are Catching On
By Chris & Lee Wolfe
Photos by Lauren Kearns, others Courtesy of Flipside Farm (Photo of Talylor on the tractor by Mimi Jacobs)
Our old Cherokee rattled down Larger Crossroads beyond the junctions of Long Lane and Spook Hollow Road. This northwest corner of Somerset County is still horse country, where the vestiges of colonial homesteads and the grand estates and farms of the landed gentry are tucked away behind moats of dusty dirt roads. It’s a place where forest and farm meet and where you’ll see white-tailed deer grazing with Angus cattle in a wood-bound pasture. It’s noisy with birdsong at this time of the morning, and brazenly traversed by red fox, the descendants of wily, old world predators brought here for sport by Anglophile huntsmen, whose modern day successors still give chase with horse and hound. As we rumbled up the winding drive to Flipside Farm, the fox’s proficiency at poultry poaching was evidenced by the absence of the