“When you go to New York and start talking to your customers and restaurants, your adrenaline gets going and it’s all worth it.” –Suzy Dare
Suzy Dare, co-owner and operator of Cherry Lane Farms, has the kind of casual, and welcoming personality that immediately relaxes you. My over four hour drive to Roadstown, NJ, a Southern New Jersey town located near the borders of both Delaware and Maryland, left me exhausted and thirsty. My visit to Cherry Lane coincided with an oppressive heat wave, the outside car thermometer rarely wavering below 98 degrees.
Well before my drive down to her farm, Suzy was chatty and personable on the phone, even asking if there were anything she needed to do to prepare for my visit (“No, I’m just excited to see the farm and talk to you!”) She welcomed me into her home and we sat down with tall glasses of ice water to talk for a few hours.
Up until 2009, Cherry Lane Farms of Roadstown was owned and operated by Suzy and her husband, Ray. Ray had worked as a farmer his entire life, also serving as a corporate pilot for nine years before he bought the land and started Cherry Lane Farms. Suzy met him in 1986 and immediately started helping him sell at markets and keep the books. In the farm’s early days, Cherry Lane made seven market appearances a week, including stops at the World Trade Center market, Union Square, and 77th Street, but years of 2 AM wake up calls prompted Suzy and Ray to whittle down their market schedule from seven markets to three.
“They are 16 hour days. … You didn’t make that much when you had that many [markets]. I said let’s just concentrate on a few. As soon as we did that, we started making money. We can run three and make as much as we were making with the seven. So it was worth it that way.”
The three day a week schedule proved to be much more manageable for the Dares, especially as they were forced to deal with health issues at home. Ray passed away from cancer in 2006. Reflecting on these difficult times, Suzy was upfront about her wish to stop going to the markets so that she could fully be with her sick husband and family.
“After Ray got sick, I was just going to let it go—I’ve never farmed. But then my son [Lewis] got a crash course from my step son. [He showed Lewis the] different tractors and how to use them. [He showed him everything] one time and then he left. Lew grasped [everything] fast and went on to classes and took courses in the winter time. He was determined. He really did find his passion and zeroed in on certain things that have helped us with our business. People really do want heirloom tomatoes, so we’re [especially] pushing those, along with everything else.”
These days Lewis DePietro runs the farm, with the help of several of Suzy’s children and seven workers. Suzy takes care of the bills, payroll, and wholesale. In fact, while we were talking, Suzy answered several calls from various Manhattan restaurants, including Jean Georges, requesting produce.
These phone calls piqued my interest, so I asked Suzy which restaurants Cherry Lane sources to and how those relationships developed. Cherry Lane sources to thirty different restaurants, including all of the Manhattan based Jean Georges restaurants, Blue Hill, Babbo, Tom Colicchio’s restaurants (Craft, Colicchio and Sons, Craftbar), and Gotham Bar and Grill. “They like to put our name on their menus,” Suzy proudly shared.
Cherry Lane’s successful partnership with these stellar New York restaurants is one of the primary reasons for the farm’s success. A really slow day at the market (such as the Wednesday before I visited, according to Suzy) isn’t a disaster for the farm because of their wholesale business. “My restaurants have saved us for the last 10 years.” Since such a large chunk of their livelihood comes from the restaurant business, I wondered how Cherry Lane manages distribution. Suzy shared that a few big distributors come to the farm, but most restaurants simply stop by Union Square Market to pick up their orders. “They call ahead of time. We have the orders written up and we make up the orders when we get [to Union Square].”
Suzy Dare was quick to point out there is a lot (“too much”) of competition at the farmers’ markets today. “Everyone seems to be have tomatoes, peppers, and corn…. There seems to be twice as much of everything.” Despite the intense competition, Cherry Lane maintains a consistent customer base, who excitedly turn out for the farm’s flavorful heirloom tomatoes, onions, and squash.
The untimely passing of Ray has forced Suzy and Lewis to embrace change and adapt to new circumstances. Even before Ray’s death, the farm’s crop evolved in accordance to what was selling and what grew most easily. These days, Cherry Lane is trying to become more involved in their hometown. They’re in touch with several local distributors and bigger produce stands in Delaware. They’re batting around the idea of traveling to Washington, DC (only a three hour drive for them). They’ve even been approached by their local Shop Rite grocery store.
Find Cherry Lane on Wednesday and Saturdays at the Union Square Greenmarket and Saturdays at 82nd Street until Thanksgiving. A full product list is available on their What is Fresh profile page. Besides heirlooms, squash, onions, this summer you can also purchase okra, eggplant, and pickles.
Where did the name Cherry Lane come from?
S.D.: Originally the farm started out with cherry trees. We had a peach orchard on the left and apple orchard…then pie cherries…then pear trees at the end of the lane. After Ray passed, I went away and my son had a logger come in and he taped the trees that were dead and [the people who came to remove the trees] ended up taking out the good ones. [I remember when] we had the cherries; it was so pretty in the spring. [Suzy then showed me a picture of one of her dogs in a lane full of cherry blossoms; she occasionally brings this picture to the market]
What’s your favorite product that you grow? What’s something that you’re most proud of?
S.D.: The asparagus is the original thing my husband started years ago. We literally reached down 4 feet to plant these plants. You’re good for 16 years…with one asparagus plant.
Your farm isn’t certified organic, but it seems like you try to practice mostly organic methods?
S.D.: We started this year with organic fertilizer and we try not to spray, pesticides especially. It takes seven years to get certified. We are very selective and use as little as possible.
We have almost 75 acres [and have had] potato bugs, eating the flowers off of all the plants. We had a whole cantaloupe field disappear. A root worm ate the whole cantaloupe plant below the earth. We had to go back into each hole and seed more plants.
We’ve even tried balloons to keep birds away from the cherries. We haven’t had a cherry in a long time, because the birds eat all of our cherries. We’ve tried balloons, we’ve tried nets. We never used sprays [on the cherries], because we don’t like the idea of a fruit with a spray. I’m not going to sell a fruit with a spray on it.
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