If you’ve ever wondered why New Jersey is called the Garden State, S & R Farms will provide an answer.
Located in central New Jersey in Allentown just off the New Jersey Turnpike, the 350-acre Certified American Grown flower farm lies in the shadow of some of the most urbanized landscapes on Earth. New York City is an hour north on I-95 and Philadelphia is a half-hour south.
But at S & R Farms, the view includes acres and acres of peonies and sunflowers.
“You would never know that New York City is just around the corner from here,” said Nick Ricci, owner and head flower farmer at S & R Farms.
That proximity to major East Coast population centers also translates to a whole lot of potential customers nearby. Its location makes marketing a low priority for S & R Farms. There’s no website and it has little presence on social media. But the demand for its flowers is strong.
“The demand is never ending,” Ricci said. “It’s just about trying to get the right price for it.”
S & R is a family operation involving Ricci, his wife, stepfather and father-in-law, with help from a crew of seasonal workers. Together they raise about 50 varieties of flowers on 350 acres. Sunflowers get the most space with about 60 acres followed by peonies on about 20 acres. There’s also coxcomb, dianthus, feverfew, marigolds and zinnias, to name a few.
S & R gets its flowers to market via a network of wholesalers and brokers that put together bouquets for supermarkets. It also relies on a group of independent sellers who supply flowers to small deli-type stores in New York City.
“It’s actually a pretty big business,” Ricci said. “It might not look like much – each store will have three or four buckets – but you times that by 50 or 60 stores across the city and it’s quite a bit of stuff every week.”
Despite all the nearby urban environments, farming has always a good fit for Ricci. He’s worked on farms his entire working life, starting with produce and moving to flowers.
“It’s always been farming for me,” he said. “I never really liked anything else.”
After working on a flower farm for 10 years, he struck out on his own with the help of his stepfather, who had grown up on a farm in Vineland, N.J.
At the time they started looking for property, Princeton Nurseries, a major grower in the area since 1913, was going out of business. They ended up buying three of Princeton’s contiguous farms. “It was perfect timing,” Ricci said.
S & R started with peonies and gradually added more varieties. “We’ve grown every year,” Ricci said.
Future growth might include venturing into selling flowers directly to consumers at the farm. Many surrounding produce growers have embraced farm tourism to help boost the bottom line. Ricci also is considering selling peonies via the internet.
For now, becoming a Certified American Grown operation is one way to bolster business. Ricci said he pursued the certification at the request of a couple of wholesalers who wanted to promote their offerings as American-grown.
“It really opens up the gates to go other places,” he said. “People are starting to care where their flowers come from. They want to buy flowers from here, not China or Colombia or wherever they’re coming from. It separates you from everybody else.”