Cherry Valley Cooperative Growing Into Its New Location

By Doug Wallack

The Cherry Valley Cooperative prepares for its first harvest at its new location. (Photo by Rachel Steinhauser)

“You know, the food that we’re eating is just devoid of nutrients, and it’s devoid of flavor,” Lauren Nagy says, perched on a plastic chair in the greenhouse of the Cherry Valley Cooperative. Rows of carrots, Swiss chard, kale, and all manner of other vegetable sit in starter trays stretching to the back of the facility in a patchwork of greens. A barrel-sized bucket of “compost tea” brews, gurgling nearby. Ms. Nagy explains that much of the flavor and aroma of fruits and vegetables is influenced and enriched by soil life. She says that large-scale agricultural producers tend to neglect soil quality, to the detriment of their produce. “People just don’t want to eat it — because it sucks,” she says, “We’re trying to make people like food again.”

The Cherry Valley Cooperative, which bills itself as a “Center for Permaculture & Holistic Wellness,” is in the midst of its first growing season at 619 Cherry Valley Road, Princeton. Formerly known as Cooperative 518, the Cherry Valley Cooperative is a farm and wellness center run as a producer’s cooperative. Their desire to farm sustainably informs their focus on permaculture — an agricultural movement that seeks to promote health and fertility by mimicking natural systems and working with the ecology of a particular location rather than imposing upon it with synthetic fertilizers and the like. By way of example, Ms. Nagy points to the swales they’ve dug in their fields — furrows that take advantage of the land’s changes in elevation to channel rainwater and irrigate their crops naturally.

Ms. Nagy met her cofounder and fiancé Alec Gioseffi in 2012 at Canal Farm in Kingston, which supplies produce to the Terra Momo Restaurant Group. After working there together for a season, the two decided to strike out on their own and began to farm a portion of the nine-acre plot in Franklin Township that would become Coop 518.

By last year, Coop 518 had outgrown that original location. So last summer, with the help of Pinakin Pathak, CEO of the stone importing business OHM International, the coop bought its current plot off of Cherry Valley Road: 97 acres of fields, woods, and wetlands. In anticipation of the beginning of its Community Supported Agriculture program (a weekly produce subscription service) and the opening of its farm store — both later this month — the Cherry Valley Coop has a wealth of crops in the ground: broccoli, cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, Swiss chard, kale, collard greens, beets, carrots, bok choi, and more. The farm also keeps sheep, pigs, chickens, and guinea hens.

But the coop members are not content to simply work the land. Ms. Nagy holds yoga classes on the farm. Chris Moran, who is a personal trainer in addition to his work on the farm, hosts “playful movement” parkour classes in the property’s woods, and Samuel Steward practices massage and sound therapy when he’s not tending the fields. The coop hosts a monthly potluck dinner, open to all comers, which Ms. Nagy hopes will be a first step in their broader community outreach and nutrition education initiatives.

Collectively, the coop members are a young crew, mostly in their mid- to late-20s, and their energy and idealism are palpable. On the edge of the property, near the grove of evergreens where they are cultivating shiitake mushrooms, the coop has begun to build a “yurt village” for a small core cohort of members to live on site. In the future, time and funds permitting, they aim to restore the historic barn on their property (constructed around 1780), and construct a new building with offices, a commercial kitchen, and a yoga studio. Ms. Nagy says she dreams of turning Cherry Valley Coop into a full-blown eco resort someday, complete with a bed and breakfast.

For now, though, they are focused on delivering a first harvest at the new location. And despite the occasional setback — a spell of unusually cold spring weather here, a popped tractor tire there — things are going well so far. “There’s a lot of grace here,” Ms. Nagy says.