Sunday, April 14, 2024

BUSINESS SPOTLIGHT: Marksboro Mills, 1045 Route 94, Marksboro, NJ (Frelinghuysen Township)

Ruth Perretti stands in her recently harvested oat field in a cover crop of clover as her dogs Lulu and Boo explore. Photo by C.Tamulonis, 8/2023

If you are driving along Route 94 through Marksboro in Frelinghuysen Township, you’ll pass something that the town and neighboring area has not seen in a long time — a working gristmill. Ruth Perretti, of Ruthie’s Farm, in collaboration with River Valley Community Grains, developed Marksboro Mills as an agricultural hub for growers to process their own grains and sell their products.

Housed in the renovated farm equipment repair warehouse once known as “Cappy’s,” Marksboro Mills is clean and bright. On the right day you can see Mike Hozer, Lenny Bussanich or Larry Mahmarian of River Valley Community Grains processing a variety of grains like wheat, oats, rye, organic spelt and more.

The spacious mercantile and demonstration area of the mill. Photo by C.Tamulonis, 8/2023

Inside, you can see the progression of milling equipment growing from small to large as the demand for healthy, locally sourced food steadily increases.

It all began when Perretti, who had been supplying organic produce from her farm in Frelinghuysen to her restaurant, Ruthie’s BBQ & Pizza in Montclair, decided to begin growing wheat. The restaurant, co-owned by her husband Eric Kaplan, a professional chef and blues musician, closed this August after a successful 16 year run so they could concentrate on the regional grain movement full-time.

“A few years ago, Eric and I were out for a walk on the farm, and he looked at the rye and asked, ‘Why can’t we grow our own wheat for pizza dough?’” she said. Perretti quickly saw the opportunity to bring regenerative farm practices back to the area and help other local growers get their product to market.

Perretti pitched the idea to farmer Thomas C. Bennet, who worked her farm for years growing hay and feed crops. “He said, ‘Yes! Let’s do it, let’s change our farming practices’,” she said. Bennet initially had trouble finding a combine to use, so he bought one — and in 2017 they were harvesting their first crop of winter wheat. Bennet died in 2019, and his brother John Bennet still works the farm.

Planting cover crops, like clover, is just one of the ways Perretti changed their farming practices from harmful, back to sustainable. Cover crops help prevent weeds and soil erosion without the use of harmful chemicals. They also benefit the soil and ecosystem. “In the 1980s when growers were told to go big or get out, many turned to soy and feed crops to stay afloat,” Perretti explained. “With all the chemical farming that followed, the watershed became in real danger. On top of that you have sick soil that’s been stripped and isn’t healthy enough to pass on all the nutrients to what you’re growing.”

Protecting the watershed is a priority for Perretti, and her farm has River Friendly Farm Certification. Watersheds are areas of land that shed water into local streams and rivers, and if chemicals are used on nearby farms, that’s where they are likely to wind up.

In the process Perretti became aware of the issues in mass food processing. “When food costs drop, healthcare costs go up,” she said. “Today, people can’t eat gluten because of how it’s mass processed.”

Additional grain bin storage sits outside the mill for growers. Photo by C.Tamulonis, 8/2023

Perretti’s goal for Marksboro Mills is hyper local. “It’s about serving this community,” she said. “It will be a place where farmers and makers can sell their products, and where the community can come together.”

Pancake mix milled on site for sale. Photo by C.Tamulonis, 8/2023

Serving as the board president of the Northwest New Jersey Foodshed Alliance and collaborating with the “Empowering Youth Entrepreneurs From Seed to Sale” program, which focusses on small grain production and vocational opportunities, Perretti knows that agricultural education is vitally important to the local economy. “We’ve lost generations of farming families, it’s time to bring it back,” she said. “We need people working in agriculture.”

Part of the plan for Marksboro Mills is to use the space to teach the process of getting food to the table. Students will learn about the growing and processing of wheat and a demonstration kitchen, equipped with convection ovens, will be used for baking. A true seed to plate journey.

Her next project is renovating the three bay garage on the property. “I could see a carpenter or textile professional using it,” Perretti said. Adjacent to the mill is Marksboro’s original schoolhouse, which Perretti renovated to be the home for a future farm manager. “We’re looking for someone who can be a resource for other local farmers and who can help them transition from feed to heritage grains.”

The interior of the three bay garage undergoing renovations for a future craftsperson.
Photo by C.Tamulonis, 8/2023

Perretti points out that growers do not need to be organically certified to work with the mill. “We support transitioners,” she said. “This is about building relationships, keeping it small and knowing your growers.”

And the demand for artisanal grain is high with consumers seeking a healthy and more sustainable lifestyle and bakeries and restaurants wanting to provide it to them.

Grain stacked in the temperature-controlled storage room at the mill. Photo by
C.Tamulonis, 8/2023

Perretti’s farm holds deep familial roots for her. Built in 1715, her parents bought the modest stone farmhouse back in the 1970s. They renovated it for the family to spend time together away from Montclair. “When I’m here, I’m home,” she said.

“My dad would say, ‘Let’s grow vegetables and sell them to the restaurants in New York City.’ My parents loved food and loved to cook,” she said. “Coming to the farm was always a special time for us, and it saved me more than once.” Her parents, Peter and Ruth Perretti, are buried in the Marksboro Cemetery.

Perretti and Kaplan are eager to soon be able to live at the farm full-time. As creatives (Perretti previously worked in the design industry) they are looking forward to using the barn in the back of Marksboro Mills for community events. “It would be perfect for a neighborhood clambake and some live music,” said Perretti.

Ruth Perretti. Photo courtesy of Ruth Perretti

“Millers are the first and foremost reason we are here,” she said. “But it’s about place. We’re not looking to bring in people from the city. This is for the people here.”

Perretti believes that positive change comes from showing how a different way of doing things can make an impact and give farmers new opportunities. “You can’t make any change but to start with where you are,” she said.

“Marksboro Mills is a communal working space and ag hub in Frelinghuysen, NJ that actively contributes to a sustainable food system and healthy watershed by providing creative space and resources for local millers and makers,” from the Marksboro Mills website.

Click the links below to learn more about Marksboro Mills, River Valley Community Grains and Ruthie’s Farm.

https://www.marksboromills.com/

https://www.rivervalleycommunitygrains.com/

https://www.riverfriendlyfarm.org/Farms/Ruthie’s-Farm

Cybele Tamulonis
Cybele Tamulonis, Contributing Writer

Cybele is a writer and editor with more than 16 years in the publishing industry. An avid reader, you can usually find her with the latest new book release from the local library. She currently resides on a farm in Hardwick with her husband and four children. In her spare time, she writes historical fiction specific to New Jersey.