Science and passion make Bob Muth
one of the state’s master growers
Photography by Michelle Montgomery
In this age of confusing product claims, Bob Muth has found a simple way to describe the farming philosophy that he and his wife Leda use on Muth Family Farm in Williamstown: commonsense farming.
“It’s the way my father taught me,” he says. “I went to college and studied this stuff, but the smartest lessons came from my father. It’s not rocket science. It’s so dang simple if you just follow nature and stick to the fundamentals.”
Combining practical wisdom with a methodical approach to problem solving, Muth delivers a level of quality and consistency that has made him one of the state’s most sought-after local produce suppliers. His willingness to share what he knows with other farmers has also earned him the respect and admiration of his fellow growers.
Muth traces his father’s farming philosophy back to the family’s roots in southern Germany. “Everything over there is farmed naturally and land is precious,” Muth says. “You care for it like a member of the family. That’s the way Pop was taught and that’s the way he laid the foundation for me.”
Armed with a degree in plant sciences from Rutgers and a desire to teach, Muth left his father’s 45-acre farm in Monroe Township in 1985 to become an extension agent in South Carolina. He spent two and a half years there, working with farmers who were transitioning from tobacco to vegetables. Disregarding his boss’s request that he visit farms in a suit and tie, Muth donned coveralls and boots to work side by side with farmers under the tractor or out in the field—gaining him a loyal following among growers. As his territory expanded, he found himself living out of a suitcase as he crisscrossed the state providing technical assistance to farmers.
“I remember telling Pop what I was doing,” Muth says. “He said, ‘If you’re going to work that hard, why not come back and work for yourself?’” Muth took his father’s advice and returned to the family farm—and was greeted with predictions from some neighboring farmers that he would fail. “Some of them were snickering,” Muth recalls; others just thought he was crazy. They didn’t understand why he would leave a good job in South Carolina with benefits to farm in New Jersey. Fearing that he might need a backup plan, Muth enrolled in graduate school to study plant virology, setting up his schedule so that he was in class three days a week and farming six acres of land on the remaining four. On a perfect spring day in 1989, two years into graduate school, he found himself sitting captive in a classroom, watching wistfully out the window as his friend plowed a nearby field. It was then that he made the decision to leave school—in good standing, but with his thesis unfinished—to farm full-time.
“When people tell you you’re going to fail as a farmer, you prove ’em otherwise,” Muth says. “With Leda’s help, I’ve been far more successful than I would have ever dreamed possible.”
Muth believes that New Jersey is the best place in the United States to be
farming today. “The opportunity here is tremendous as long as you’re
willing to commit to it and farm with your heart and soul,” he says.
Good soil husbandry, says Muth, is the foundation of commonsense farming and a necessity for good quality and yields. While growing vegetables in the gravelly loam that covers much of his farm will render that soil crusty and compacted, he learned from county soil guides that his soil can be very productive if organic matter is maintained or, ideally, increased. He knew from watching his father farm that cover crops provide only a temporary fix, increasing organic matter slightly for one growing season before it drops back down. A state ban on sending municipal leaves to landfills gave Muth a possible solution—raising the organic matter in his soils by covering his fields with cheap, plentiful municipal leaves.
Before experimenting with leaf applications, Muth talked about his plans with some established farmers in the area. They all made the same prediction—the leaves would push the soil pH way down, requiring tons of lime to counteract the acidity. Undeterred, Muth put his theory to the test by spreading leaves at the rate of two inches, four inches and six inches deep on small sample plots. Two years later, when the leaves were fully broken down, he sent soil samples to a test lab at Rutgers.
“I was expecting the pH to drop where we had spread the leaves the heaviest,” Muth says. “The pH levels were actually going the other way. They were climbing.” (This finding was later confirmed in field trials conducted by Rutgers soil scientist Joseph Heckman.) Muth also found that leaves bring the organic matter in his soils up without a significant drop for three to five years. The result is crumbly black earth that Muth says is starting to resemble potting soil.
In order to give the leaves time to break down, Muth is only actively farming, at any given time, about 20% of his 118 acres (he and Leda now own two farm properties and, thanks to a provision in a family trust set up by his father, have a long-term lease on his father’s farm). The remainder of his land is in the leaves-to-cover-crop phase of his farming rotation, which begins with the application of a sixinch layer of leaves over frozen ground. Those leaves are incorporated into the soil in late spring and a rye cover crop is planted in the fall. A second cover crop is planted the following year and a legume cover crop is planted the following fall to increase nitrogen levels in the soil. The following spring, two years after he covered that field in leaves, he plants his vegetable crop. If the fertility remains high, he will plant vegetables again on that land the following year before returning it to leaves and cover crops. The complete leaves-to-cover- crop-to-vegetable rotation takes four to five years. This lengthy rotation cycle allows organic matter and fertility to build up in those fields so that when Muth plants his crops, which he does very intensively, he can get a very high yield from a very small area.
The vibrancy and vitality of Muth’s cover crops helps him determine
when his fields are ready for planting. Below, a cover crop of vetch,
clover and rye.
Along with good soil husbandry, a crucial part of Muth’s success is his insistence on understanding the science behind his crops. For any new crop, he begins by planting small trial plots and making careful observations. “It comes back to my college training,” he says.
“If you’re going to learn to grow a crop, do you want to put in two or three acres of it, knowing it might blow up in your face? Can’t you learn just as much from growing 15 or 20 plants and planting it in succession throughout the season?” Armed with the knowledge gained in these trials, Muth grows larger plots in subsequent years.
This approach has enabled him to successfully bring challenging crops to the local wholesale market, including organic sweet corn and organic strawberries.
To manage pests and disease, Muth relies heavily on integrated pest management (IPM)—the practice of monitoring for the first sign of pest or disease in order to intervene in the least toxic, most effective way available. He has been in the Rutgers IPM program for 20 years and credits the program with giving him the resources and knowledge needed to stay ahead of problems in the fields. “That comes back to understanding who the key people are, talking to them, and learning more about the pests or the disease—what makes it tick, what its likes and dislikes are—so that you can incorporate that weakness into your system to control it or attempt to control it,” Muth says. “You just can’t farm with your head in the sand. You’ve got to know what you’re working with and where you can go to get help quickly.”
On his farm, Muth increasingly uses high tunnels (simple, unheated greenhouses also called “hoop houses”) to grow crops such as strawberries and tomatoes. Although they’re commonly used to lengthen the growing season, Muth views high tunnels as crop insurance— they enable him to create a dry, protected environment in which he can control exactly how much water his plants receive and shelter them from extreme weather events, such as hail, that can wipe out an entire crop in moments. Although they add expense, high tunnels ensure that he is consistent in his ability to supply produce to his customers.
In 2001, Muth transitioned 35 acres of his father’s farm to organic. He credits Leda with pushing him toward organic certification—a move that he said was fairly easy given that he was already employing many of the recommended organic growing practices. (His remaining acreage is managed using mostly organic practices, but is not certified.
This allows him to intervene with non-organic methods, when necessary, on high-risk, high-volume crops such as the red peppers he grows for supermarkets.) Finding little initial demand for their organic product in the wholesale market, the Muths started a community- supported agriculture (CSA) program on their farm. With more than 450 members, the CSA diversifies their income and gives Muth the opportunity to test out new crops on a small scale.
The remainder of Muth’s produce is sold in the wholesale market, much of it through Zone 7—a New Jersey-based farm-direct wholesaler. Success in that market comes from Muth’s focus on understanding the needs of his customers. “Bob Muth knows what the retailer is looking for,” says Mikey Azzara, owner of Zone 7. “He grows an amazing product and his product is in demand.”
Mike Atkinson, produce manager for Whole Earth Center in Princeton, notes that Muth not only delivers quality and consistency, but strikes the right balance between flavor (ripeness) and integrity (firmness) when he chooses the harvest time for fragile crops such as strawberries and tomatoes. For a retailer, that equates to less loss due to damaged or overripe fruit.
When asked to comment on Muth’s skills as a farmer, Azzara says, “It’s not so much what I would say about Bob Muth. It’s what the other growers say about Bob Muth. The other growers, whether they are organic or conventional, say that he is probably the best vegetable grower in the state of New Jersey.”
In recognition of their role as stewards of the land and community role models, the Muths were given the prestigious Mid-Atlantic Master Farmer Award in 2007. In 2013, fellow farmers honored Muth with the Gloucester County Board of Agriculture’s 2013 Distinguished Service to Agriculture Award for his “dedication and selfless service to Gloucester County agriculture.”
Muth believes that farmers have an obligation to help each other succeed—an idea that Azzara thinks comes, in part, from Muth’s understanding that the market demand for local produce, and especially local organic produce, is far from being met. “Information and knowledge should be shared,” Muth says. “If you can help someone else to do a better job and remain profitable and viable, you do your part. That’s the way I’ve always tried to do.”
Despite the challenges, Muth believes that New Jersey is the best place in the United States to be farming today. “The opportunity here is tremendous as long as you’re willing to commit to it and farm with your heart and soul,” he says. Along with the financial rewards, Muth appreciates the growing public support for our state’s farmers.
“I never thought I’d live to see the day where people would call you by your first name and say, ‘We are so appreciative of what you do, and don’t stop.’ When you hear that, it gives your life meaning—that you made that correct choice back in 1989 when you left graduate school to farm. I’m glad I lived to see that.”
Muth Family Farm
1639 Pitman Downer Rd., Williamstown