Specializing in the unusual
by Sally Colby
As she begins her fifth year of farming, Allison Akbay falls under the USDA’s definition of “beginning farmer.” But Allison doesn’t fit the beginner mold.
“I have a long history in agriculture,” said Allison. “My father, Dr. Harry Motto, ran the Rutgers Soil Testing Lab from 1967 to 1997 and taught soils classes at Rutgers University. Dad always gave me the lectures on soil health and fertility, and agronomy in general, as we traveled the world.”
The information and experience Allison gained while she was growing up became a valuable asset. She purchased 78 acres, 38 of which are tillable, in Cranbury, NJ, and named it Snapping Turtle Farm. Allison transitioned the former conventional crop farm to USDA certified organic. Today, the mixed vegetable and herb farm specializes in direct sales to the public via deliveries to homes, regional farmers markets and restaurants. Allison recently started growing South Asian vegetables to increase diversity and meet the growing demand for specialty vegetables.
This season’s crop list includes 82 selections, many of which are specialty crops. “A high tunnel extends the season,” said Allison. “We grow some greens in there, then tomatoes and cucumbers. We also start plants and sell those in May.”
To meet the growing demand for specialty produce, Allison learned to cultivate quite a few vegetables that aren’t commonly grown in New Jersey. “We grow these vegetables because they’re very popular with the South Asian community,” she said. “Our area of New Jersey has a large and growing Southeast Asian and East Asian community, and a lot of people are in search of plants and vegetables popular in their cuisine and culture.”
One popular plant among customers is tulsi, also known as holy basil. It’s a type of basil that has the same growing season as Italian culinary basil. Although tulsi is a perennial in parts of India and other countries with similar climates, many new immigrants to the U.S. are surprised to find out it’s grown as an annual here.
“People who come to the U.S. as immigrants are used to having a tulsi bush growing outside their home, but that doesn’t work in New Jersey,” said Allison, adding that she grows tulsi plants for a local Hindu temple. “When I sell it at farmers markets, I have to explain that it isn’t the same basil that’s used in sauce. It’s lovely as a tea, and considered medicinal, and it’s used as a culinary herb in some Thai food.”
Udumalpet is another specialty vegetable, which Allison describes as a striped Indian eggplant the size of a goose egg. “It has a strong eggplant flavor,” she said. “It dissolves in cooking, and it’s great as a thickener for a curry or sauce.”
When Allison realized it was too hot to grow regular spinach throughout the season, she switched to Malabar spinach. “It’s a vining crop so I grow it on a trellis,” she said, adding that growth is vigorous. “The leaves are thick and fleshy, and are best cooked.”
She grows two varieties of bitter melon: an Indian variety, which is quite bitter, and a less bitter, smoother variety that’s popular in the Filipino and Chinese communities. Standard slicing cucumbers and Persian cucumbers are also popular. Allison describes the latter as small, thin-skinned fruits that are sweet and crunchy which can be eaten without peeling. To aid air circulation and keep fruits clean, Allison grows bitter melon and cucumbers on trellises.
Other vegetables include radishes, squash, pole beans, tomatoes, edamame and okra. Allison has been working with Rutgers professor Dr. Albert Ayeni, who has crossed red Indian okra varieties with American varieties to develop a desirable red okra for South Asian communities.
Several specialty peppers are market favorites, including Ghost pepper, an Indian hot pepper, and Scotch bonnet, a very hot pepper from the Caribbean. Allison also grows Haskorea pepper, which is similar to the peppers grown in Turkey and desirable for drying, roasting or fresh eating. The heat level of Haskorea is similar to jalapeño but with a different flavor.
Although Allison starts tomatoes for outdoor planting, she’s found it isn’t worth starting them too early. “Soil temperature is just as or more important than air temperature,” she said. “If it’s too early, they’re in cold soil and don’t grow until the soil warms up. If I plant some of them three weeks early and plant more at the normal time, a month later they’re all the same size.”
As part of her pest and disease management, Allison rotates vegetable crops with cover crops. “This year we’ll have about eight acres under cultivation,” she said. “The rest will be in cover crops. We’ve tried a few different cover crops – last year we used a mix of sudangrass and sunn hemp, which is an excellent nitrogen fixer.”
Growing vegetables in New Jersey means dealing with sandy soil, which Allison said is beneficial but challenging. In addition to rotating vegetable crops with soil-enriching cover crops, she’s been working to build organic matter in the soil through minimum tillage. She uses a disk harrow in spring to incorporate the autumn-planted cover crop. Plastic mulch serves several purposes, including preserving organic matter. In spring, Allison forms rows and lays plastic as soon as she can get on the ground.
“Plastic mulch allows us to avoid tilling between the rows for weed suppression,” said Allison. “There’s drip irrigation under the plastic, and I plant a cover crop between the rows. I plant white clover and oats between the rows, then mow down the oats when they get tall. The white clover takes over and will remain for several years.”
In addition to growing vegetables, Allison started a mulberry orchard with three dark varieties and three white varieties. Mulberry trees are abundant in New Jersey because at one time, the state was supposed to be the silk capital of the world, and mulberries would have fed the silkworms.
“Mulberries are very popular in Russia and China, and also parts of India, so there’s a market for them,” she said. “They tend to be very disease resistant, but they’re also very perishable. We’re experimenting to see if we can get the right size trees that work for picking, and without pesticides.”
This year, Snapping Turtle Farm will be present at three farmers markets. “Farmers markets in New Jersey are highly competitive,” said Allison. “We have to agree to be there weekly. Customers can pick up a weekly box of vegetables at the farm office, pick up at two of the three markets or request delivery service.”
Visit Snapping Turtle Farm online at SnappingTurtleFarm.com.