Fossil Farms is a mission driven company guided by a few core principles.
This means, consistently having the best quality products and the best service in the industry.
Making a living, hand to mouth
By Meghan O'Connell
Originally published in the Suburban News on July 8, 2009
For a number of business owners in northwest Bergen County, "buy local" is more than a campaign to boost the bottom line - it's a way of living, and the living, they say, is good.
Long after the Dutch arrived and began tilling and toiling to produce grains, fruits and vegetables to feed the marketplace, the area's rich agricultural heritage is still being tapped, from the fields of Sun Valley Farms in Mahwah and the coops of Goffle Road Poultry Farm in Wyckoff to the entrees on the tables at Café Panache in Ramsey and La Strada in Midland Park to the overflowing bins of produce welcoming customers to The Market Basket in Franklin Lakes and vegetables piles high in the Italian Riviera in Waldwick.
Bergen County is, in fact, home to 318 acres of farmland, including the 6.5-acre Twinbrook Nurseries on Franklin Avenue in Franklin Lakes and the 218 acres that comprise Sun Valley, both of which have been permanently preserved by the state.
Lance Appelbaum, who with his brother, Todd, operates an exotic meat business called Fossil Farms, headquartered in Oakland, said he thinks there's a lot more garden in the Garden State than people give it credit for.
"It's the word 'garden' for a reason," he said. "A lot of people don't realize that northern New Jersey - [including] Sussex County, Warren County - has some beautiful, beautiful farms."
Jim Abma says he remembers watching his father drive off in his truck to sell fresh milk and produce that was harvested on land that's been in his family since the 1790's. His father and his son have farmed the land, and now his 22-year-old grandson, Jim Jr., is in charge of the operation and is making plans to take over the business.
In addition to cultivating, 80 varieties of vegetables on the 30 acres in Wyckoff and on land rented in Mahwah, Abma raises chickens, pigs and turkeys.
Jim Jr. plants the crops in batches so that he can harvest vegetables in smaller quantities throughout the whole summer. Much of the produce sold in a store on the property on Lawlins Road is harvested that morning, Jim Jr. said. And the eggs are usually between two hours and three hours old.
"If it's not on the plate in four days," he asked rhetorically, "then what's the difference between ours and California's?"
That guarantee of freshness is one reason some local restaurateurs prefer to buy from Abma rather than from large-scale suppliers. Jim Jr. said Abma sells its produce to Café Panache in Ramsey, Café Amici and Christian Health Care Center in Wyckoff and La Strada in Midland Park, among other establishments.
"They grow and I pick," said Kevin Kohler, who has owned Café Panache for 24 years and is a hands-on kind of guy. For nine years, he has gone to Abma's fields each morning and evening to take his pick of the crop.
"Nobody can really get what I get because I go out and grab it personally," he says.
Kohler chooses the ripest produce and incorporates it in his dishes that same day, he said.
But Abma is not his sole source of fresh fruit and vegetables. He forages for mushrooms during hikes at Ramapo Reservation in Mahwah, but cautions the curious to leave that task to the experts, as many kinds are inedible.
Kohler buys all his meat and produce from small operations that specialize in particular products. As for large-scale suppliers, he said, "The pride isn't there, so there's going to be flaws" with what they sell.
And, he says, consistent high quality and freshness is worth paying a little more for.
"Our local lettuces aren't as pretty as California lettuces," Kohler said. "Visually they don't match, but if you close your eyes, you taste the difference."
Kohler also buys elk, duck and buffalo from the Appelbaums' Fossil Farms.
From left, general manager Fil Silva with produce at The Market Basket in Franklin Lakes; Mario Allegra, general manager of Arturo's in Midland Park, standing amid herbs planted outside the restaurant; Mike Mucci, owner of Italian Riviera in Waldwick, with produce he buys solely from local sources.
The Appelbaum brothers started their exotic meat business with an ostrich farm they bought in Pennsylvania. The pair had grown up in Paramus and got the idea for their business about 16 years ago, on a ski trip to Colorado.
"They had ostrich and venison and buffalo on the menu," Lance Appelbaum said. "And we tried some of these products and they were terrific."
Lance Appelbaum was in sales at the time and his brother was a carpenter. They did some research and named the business after their father, whom they fondly called "The Fossil" while growing up.
Twelve years later, the pair are leasing 400 acres in Andover in Sussex County, where they are raising 300 ostriches. The rest of the meat they sell is mainly produced on family farms on the East Coast, Lance Appelbaum said, including six farms in New Jersey from which they buy lamb, goat, quail, pheasant, bison and heritage breed pigs.
The brothers also own a small plant in Washington in Warren County, where they process and package their meat. They have about 500 clients, Lance Appelbaum said, including restaurants and food distributors throughout the country. Local buyers include King's Super Market, Mahwah Bar & Grill, Brady's at the Station in Ramsey, Elm Street Grill in Oakland, and Goffle Road Poultry Farm in Wyckoff.
The Appelbaums also buy Cornish hens and chickens from the latter, which doesn't look like a farm at all from the road.
The Goffle Road Poultry Farm covers two acres, with coops, store and processing building located behind a parking lot.
"Hi, girls!" Joseph Silvestri called to some white geese in a coop as he went about his business on a recent afternoon.
Like Jim Abma Jr., Silvestri is also following a family tradition: He is the third-generation owner of the business, and keeps about 4,000 birds on his property, in addition to rabbits. The rest of the poultry he sells is raised on a farm in Pennsylvania about four hours away, he said.
"A metropolitan area is expensive for farming," he explained. "That's why we do more processing here than farming."
If he was located in Pennsylvania and had more land, he said, he could grow his own grain for feed, use the chicken manure for fertilizer, and find ample, cheaper labor, since farming is a way of life there.
While Silvestri anticipates the possibility that his 17-year-old son will one day take over the business, he said he himself never planned to. He went to college at William Paterson University and earned degrees in business administration, economics and computer sciences. But his father offered him a partnership upon graduation.
"I knew the business inside and out by that time," Silvestri said. He also knew improvements were necessary to remain profitable.
"We changed it from a farm to a farming business, which we had to do to survive," he said.
The farm was once predominately a live market, where people could choose from a selection of live chickens. The meat would be so frash, it would need to be refrigerated for at least 24 hours to tenderize before cooking, Silvestri said.
Although customers can still select a live bird for processing, most prefer to pre-order, Silvestri said. He offers a greater variety of poultry and more products in the store, such as chicken sausage and pre-roasted chickens. He also sells to 50 restaurants and farmer's markets, as well as to butchers.
"We've gone into a lot of odds and ends to [become] more consumer-friendly," Silvestri said.
His store sells eggs - chicken, quail and duck - that, again, are often only a few hours old, Silvestri said. Quail eggs are sweeter, he said, and duck eggs taste yolkier. Similarly, the varieties of birds he offers all have different tastes and fat content, he said
A steady stream of customers were keeping the employees busy in the shop one afternoon.
"They're the best chickens I've ever had," said one, Tom McKinney of Wyckoff.
The different in taste and texture between locally produced eggs and those sold in grocery stores is "shocking," Wendy Leonard of Hawthorne, who co-wrote "WomenHeart's All Heart Family Cookbook," said as she stood on line. "He has the best eggs on the East Coast."
James Kropp, chef at La Strada in Midland Park, who buys some of his poultry from Goffle, adds another reason for buying local.
"If there ever is an issue, it's easier to deal with somebody who's local than it is to deal with somebody at a distance," Kropp said. And although buying from a smaller business sometimes means paying more for the product, he said, the difference translates into only cents for the consumer.
Fil Silva, general manager of The Market Basket in Franklin Lakes, said he also prefers to deal with smaller, local farmers rather than large-scale suppliers.
"They're more down to earth, so to speak," he said, adding, "From the farms, you pick it today, we have it the day after," compared to six or seven days for produce to be transported from across the country.
The Market Basket purchases onions and apples from farms in New York, corn and tomatoes from farms in New Jersey and beef from farms in Pennsylvania, Silva said.
Italian Riviera on Prospect Street in Waldwick, on the other hand, buys all its food locally, said owner Mike Mucci. In the nine years he's been running the market-slash-deli, he said, he has dealt with larger suppliers, but favors local food for the convenience.
"If I forget something, I can go pick it up or they drop it off," Mucci said. "It's a lot easier. Whereas larger suppliers only drop off once a week."
Mucci said he buys produce from Abma and poultry from Goffle Road Poultry Farm. His other suppliers are only as far as Hackensack.
Arturo's in Midland Park takes buying local to another level: It grows its own herbs and produce. And it proves gardening doesn't require a lot of space: Snake squash sprouts in a dirt buffer about two feet wide next to the entrance ramp and mint takes root between bushes that landscape the front.
Mario Allegra, general manager of Arturo's, estimated that half of the ingredients in his dishes are from local sources.
Allegra said his mother is the one with the green thumb, having grown up on a fram in Sicily and opening the restaurant with her husband in 1982.
The coupe still cook and help run the business, Allegra said.
"There's no hardships involved in purchasing local," he said. "Everybody has a product they deliver. It's super fresh, super tasty."
Sun Valley Farm was founded in 1862 on land that was once owned by Alexander Hamilton. It has been in the Greene family for 60 years, said Carol Greene, who owns it with her husband, Richard.
"We produced everything when I was growing up," she said, including cattle and sheep.
But it can be hard to earn a living as a farmer in this area. Sun Valley has never been a primary source of income for the Greenes. Carol's father built Teterboro Airport and was a real estate entrepreneur, she said. She and Richard are also in real estate. But that doesn't mean their products aren't in demand.
The Greenes focus on growing hay, which Carol said is important as a food source for animals during the winter because it retains its nutritional value for up to a year and is also an ideal coating for stalls.
"The minute the hay gets baled, people come pick it up," Robert said. "There's such a demand for it."
For two years, the Greenes also hosted a community-supported agriculture program which enabled people to buy a share of what was grown and harvested, but said they could not find a tenant this year.
Their neighbor, Ramapo College of New Jersey, is also big on gardening.
The college's president, Peter Mercer, and his wife, Jacqueline Ehlert-Mercer, founded the Havemeyer garden on the campus in 2006 after public institutions of higher learning were being urged to establish programs to combat obesity. Vegetables and herbs now fill six raised beds on the side of the president's home that are tended by his wife and volunteers.
Ehlert-Mercer is a registered dietician and said she wants to help students make better food choices. How students eat in college "has such potential to change their eating habits for the rest of their lives," she said. The garden has also been part of outreach efforts for children in the area.
"The find out about how to food is grown, that it just doesn't appear in Stop & Shop in plastic," she said, adding that if students and children can witness the process of growing a vegetable, they may appreciate it more.
"When they see a food that's come out from under the ground, it's magical," she said.