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Frank Donio Inc. leans into regenerative farming in a big way

By
Gordon Hochberg

At the start of the 2022 New Jersey spring produce season, Frank Donio Inc. added over 600 acres of organic land as it looks toward the future and takes organic “one step further by heavily utilizing sustainable and regenerative agriculture practices,” according to the company’s Annie Pape.

The 600 acres are located just two miles from the company’s headquarters in Hammonton, NJ, and “will make us the largest regenerative organic farm in the state of New Jersey,” said Pape, who is part of the sales and marketing team at the company, and who is also fourth-generation Donio, as her great-grandfather was the founder of the company.

“The concept for this was to take organic one step further by using sustainable and primarily regenerative agricultural methods of growing,” Pape said. “This is something that had been in the works for a number of years.”

The company executive elaborated on the subject by saying, “The regenerative farming movement is an initiative that is starting to gain traction not just in this industry but with consumers as well as the general public. Basically, contemporary farming practices are focused mostly on trying to get the highest yield out of the land and not focused as much on taking care of the soil structure as well as the quality of fertility of that land. It’s just trying to get the land to produce rather than really keeping it healthy. Regenerative farming uses technology and different agricultural practices to stop degrading the soil and to rebuild it, revitalize it into healthier land, hopefully bringing higher quality and more natural produce.”

As part of the company’s commitment to regenerative farming, it has hired Jacob King as plant science and sustainable agriculture coordinator “to use a science-based approach to apply these regenerative and sustainable processes to our farm,” said Pape.

“He’s going to be managing the science end of making sure that our methods are actually successful through data, not just on our regenerative farm but also within our conventional farms as well,” she added.

King, 25, graduated from Ramapo College of New Jersey in 2019, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in biology. Before that, he worked as a wildlife field technician at the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife. He lives in Hammonton.

Asked how the additional 600 acres of organic land would be utilized, Pape replied, “There’s a multi-year plan for how this is going to be farmed. This year it will be green squash, yellow squash, sweet corn and potentially some other items. In the future, we’re looking to also have blueberries out there, but they take a little longer to establish, so that’s part of our plan moving forward.”

In the meantime, Frank Donio Inc. is concentrating on the New Jersey 2022 spring produce season. Asked how the winter and early spring were, Pape said that “there was some late cold weather in New Jersey which could mildly slow the start of the full volume, but most items seem to be coming in right around their typical windows.”

As of May 2, asparagus had already started, along with parsley, cilantro, leeks, and radishes. “Some of the lettuces have begun harvesting, but we should see red leaf, green leaf, Romaine and others come in more significantly” the week of May 9, she noted.

Asparagus has always been an important item in early spring for New Jersey, and Pape said that this year’s crop “is very much in line with the typical harvest window beginning at the start of May and continuing through the middle to the end of June.” She added that “good quality along with delays at the ports for Peruvian product have created a solid market for local asparagus.”

On the important Jersey blueberry crop in the summer, Pape said that “currently the bushes are in full bloom, and the bees are out in the fields pollinating. While it is still too soon to say definitively, current conditions are lining up for harvest to begin on time in roughly the middle of June with a promotable volume. As always, temperatures, precipitation and any major weather events will have an impact on that time frame.”

And as a year-round importer and marketer, Pape noted that “to coincide with our local crop in New Jersey, blueberries are one of our strongest commodities throughout the spring as well. We see blueberries as having a steady demand 52 weeks a year.”

Asked about the locally grown trend, Pape stated, “The closer your proximity to where the produce is grown, the better the opportunity is for quality, freshness and shelf life, which is something many consumers look for. And due to high transportation costs with no sign of notable change, local produce will continue to play a crucial role in the marketplace.”

On the topic of supply chain challenges in New Jersey as well as around the country beyond, Pape said, “Imports to our local ports have not been affected as heavily as other areas of the country, but there are times when we experience delays. All input costs have seen increases and availability issues from seed to fertilizer to packaging. Transportation costs have risen due to fuel prices and lack of drivers.”

Gordon Hochberg

Gordon Hochberg

About Gordon M. Hochberg  |  email

Gordon M. Hochberg was born in New York City, and grew up in Westchester County, NY. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in history from Lafayette College in 1973.

He started his career at The Produce News in the late 1970s, and has been with the publication ever since.

He served on the Board of Trustees of the New Jersey Agricultural Society from 2012 to 2018. He currently serves on the Southeast Produce Council’s Board of Governors.

He enjoys music, theater and reading (American and ancient history are his favorites). And he’s been a lifelong fan of the New York Yankees since attending his first game in the late 1950s. He and his wife, Kathi, have been married since 1974.

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