2876 Arthur Kill Road (between Bloomingdale and Sharrotts Roads), Rossville, S.I.
A farm since the late 1700s, and an organic farm from the 1940s, Gericke Farm is a 22-acre tract maintained and developed for production,marketing, and environmental education and outreach, using approximately 8 acres of cropland to grow vegetables, tree fruits, brambles, grapes, herbs, flowers, perennials, native plants, and to raise bees and chickens. Through a partnership between NYS Parks and Recreation, CUCE-NYC, and the NYC Board of Education, Gericke Farm has become a full-time, off-site school and agricultural laboratory for young adults with special needs.
We’ve discovered an article from the December 1949 issue of “The Organic Farmer”. We present it here in its entirety.
The Story of A Staten Island Organic Farm
By Alden Stahr
It’s hard to say which was the more astonishing, to find an organic farm inside the New York Citv limits or to discover a graduate of Rutgers Agricultural College who is an organic farmer. I found both together at the Organic Farm of Richard Gericke on Staten Island, which is the Richmond Borough of New York City.
Actually, it isn’t too surprising to find a farm in New York City as there are over two hundred of them, and Staten Island is mostly woods and fields, but the people of the world’s biggest city find the produce of an organic farm so much better than the food they can buy elsewhere that they come long distances just to buy fresh organic vegetables from Gericke. Flavor and quality-minded customers come, too, from Long Island and New Jersey and others buy by mail from as far away as California and Florida, two of our greatest foodproducing states. What would their Chambers of Commerce say about that?
When we went over to Staten Island to visit my brother, he drove us over to the Gericke Organic Farm on Arthur Hill Road and we could see at once that the farm was in a state of expansion. Bulldozer and tractor had been working to enlarge the fields available for truck farming and we could tell even before Gericke told us that business is so good that he is forced to expand. A large sign “Organic Farm” is at the edge of the road, but the vegetable stand is built into the barn.
Gericke does not find it necessary to have his stand by the edge of a heavily trafficked road, as the experts claim is essential; customers will seek you out when you offer organically grown and unsprayed produce. There is another “Organic Farm” sign on the side of the barn and this wording is repeated on the side of the station wagon. The stand is not gaudy; it retires in favor of the brilliant display of beautiful vegetables attractively arranged and freshly picked.
Gericke has twenty-one acres, with eight and one-half acres under cultivation now and more recently cleared and being built up with cover crops and compost. The land being cleared is about the sorriest stuff you ever saw-sand which supports only a meager stand of scrubby brush. In fact, the dean of Cornell Agricultural College looked at it and declared flatly that it wouldn’t grow anything in the way of crops. It was condemned as completely worthless and yet it grows great crops of lush vegetables.
What’s the answer?
The solution to this apparent riddle is in the treatment the land received. Instead of loading the sandy soil with artificial fertilizers as is done on nearby intensive truck farms and where sprays must be used in ever-increasing quantities, Gericke loaded the soil with organic matter from various sources. Heavy cover crops are his mainstay because he has a special problem working with sand. Although quick results are apparent in sand and from the addition of organic matter, it is difficult to maintain a high organic content because of leaching. Because Of this, Gericke allows his cover crops to grow very lush before working them into the soil with his Rototiller. Decomposition in such soil is very fast compared with clay soils and the fields are ready for planting sooner.
A Staten Island coffee factory was being dismantled and there was a large amount of coffee beans to be discarded. Gericke persuaded the owners to dump fifty-six truckloads of the beans on his land and it made wonderful dark humus.
A herd of purebred goats provides manure which is incorporated with their bedding and other vegetable wastes into two large compost bins made of uncemented cinder blocks. Incidentally, these goats have an earth-floored barn which is free of the odor usually associated with goats and their sleek pelts attest to the fact that they have won many a grand championship at shows. Gericke says that they achieve their finest condition when they are fed on sunflower stalks and seeds raised organically.
The only time they have had trouble with their animals was when they were obliged to buy commerciallygrown hay and feed from outside their own farm.
The goats are useful in another way besides providing milk and manure. When Gericke wants to clear another patch of land he simply encloses it with electric fencing and the goats strip the brush. This may be done with cows and sheep, too, all of whom add fertility to the soil as they work at their brush-clearing task without regard to hours or wages.
Now five years on an organic basis, Gericke started with small patches and suffered many bugs and worms in his vegetables at first. But he stuck to the organic line and each year as his land improved, the pests became less and less until they are no longer a factor. He freely admits that he has some bugs on the farm, but they are now so few and do so little damage that they do not even figure into the accounting nor could they induce him to use any kind of spray. In fact, Gericke’s father bought some spray twelve years ago, read the directions, decided it was all too much bother and the can is still sitting there unopened.
As to crops, Gericke raises all the standard vegetables, including carrots, beets, beans, tomatoes, etc. and also a few less usual items such as Chinese cabbage and okra. He thought he had planted far more okra than he would need, but a great many Southerners had moved to Staten Island and when they heard that Gericke had organically-grown okra they cleaned him out. There’s a hint here for other farmers who operate near special regional or nationality groups-find out their preferences for foods not usually raised locally and please their tastes with their favorite foods grown organically. Gericke is doing this profitably.
Because of the present high humus content of his soil, Gericke was able to plant earlier than neighboring truck farms and had sweet corn to sell June 26 and tomatoes early in July. Many of these tomatoes were local showpieces, weighing 1 1/4 pounds and selling for 28c to 30c apiece. Now customers clamor so insistently for Gericke’s organic vegetables that he is obliged to harvest such items as beets, carrots, and tomatoes before they even reach mature size. We were among those who couldn’t wait. Since we were short of beets and carrots in our own garden this year, we bought a bushel of each from Gericke and the taste was incomparable.
A curious and heartening occurrence helped to build Gericke’s business. Some early customers consistently refused to buy tomatoes or cucumbers; the former gave them a rash and the latter “talked back.” Gericke had so much faith in his organically-grown vegetables that he gave free cucumbers and tomatoes to these people if they would just try them. They did and have been steady customers for these items ever since. The cucumbers, instead of repeating, made repeat customers, the best kind. Oddly, most of Gericke’s customers come from a distance.
Since the reasons for using organic plant foods rather than artificial chemical fertilizers are rather complex to the layman, Gericke stresses the fact that his vegetables have not been sprayed with poison and finds that this information is all his customers need to know to be eager to buy from him. It’s a relief to any customer to know that he can pick up a tomato or apple off the stand and eat it on the spot without first having to scrub it with soap and water to remove a gray film of poison.
In spite of the superior quality of his produce, Gericke keeps his prices competitive. I asked him why he did not charge premium prices for organically-grown vegetables and he said there were several reasons for this. In the first place he likes to bring the benefit of naturally-grown foods to as many people as possible and he can best do this by not charging excessive prices. In the second place, and this is important to any farmer contemplating going organic, he finds it cheaper to raise crops organically. And what’s more, many of his customers who are familiar with Staten Island farming practices, know that he does not have to buy fertilizer or spray or spend time applying either and therefore they, too, feel that premium prices would not be justified since he is already making extra profit over his competitors simply by farming organically.
On the personal side, the Gerickes are enjoying the benefits of the organic foods they raise and gleaning another extra profit in the form of wonderful health. The elder Gericke told us that in the past twenty-six years, in raising five children, he has had to spend only $100 on doctors in all that time. How many families spend more than that every year! And young Richard is one of those rare persons who has never had a cavity in his teeth, simply because his father has always believed that food should be raised the natural way. It was because of his father’s long-time belief in growing foods naturally that Richard Gericke was able to come unscathed through the chemical indoctrination of his college training. The elder Gericke has always wanted to see his son have an organic farm so he has been behind Richard 100% in their organic enterprise.
The thing which has always impressed my wife and me in visiting and talking to organic farmers has been the complete enthusiasm for organiculture and the eagerness to discuss organic methods and benefits with anyone who will lend an ear. This is true of the Gerickes, too, for every customer who goes away from The Organic Farm takes with him, in addition to a basket of God’s good food, an idea which is spreading from farmer to farmer and from customer to customer as well. And when enough customers learn the truth there won’t be any more artificial chemical fertilizers or poison sprays used in growing food.