The 37 varieties of soil in Pittsgrove Township are excellent for the vegetable farming that has long defined the landscape of Salem County, New Jersey.
Also growing nicely there is a business and personal partnership between a Jewish family and a Black family, each with deep local roots. The organic farming operation the partners envision is an echo of the past, when Quakers and other Gentile neighbors helped urban Jewish refugees from Russia learn how to make a living from the land in South Jersey.
“We’ve been drawn back here,” said William Levin, a Vineland native and animation instructor. In 1882, Levin’s great-great-grandfather, Moses Bayuk, established the Jewish agricultural settlement called the Alliance Colony in Pittsgrove.
Levin, his wife, Malya, and their three young children currently split their time between a Brooklyn, New York, apartment and a split-level house formerly owned by William Levin’s grandparents on Gershal Avenue in Pittsgrove. Gershal is the main street of the long-ago colony that is widely considered to be the first successful community of its kind in America.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a movement based in Europe enabled Jews fleeing violent persecution to start new lives in small, utopian-minded settlements in South Jersey and other rural areas in the United States.
Founded on 1,800 acres with 43 original settlers, by 1901 Alliance Colony was home to 151 adults, 345 children, 78 farms and four synagogues. Many of the children of those early generations of farmers were able to attend college or enter professions other than farming, and within a few decades Alliance faded. The original farm families sold or rented their land or let it go fallow, and in the intervening years, there has been little development in the sparsely populated, now predominantly Black section of the township.
The Levins got the inspiration for what is now ACRe (Alliance Colony Reboot) — a nonprofit effort to renew the hamlet as a center of Jewish life and agriculture — after attending a retreat at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut in 2014. Given that their only hands-on experience tilling the soil occurred when a bumper crop of tomatoes seeded themselves in containers William tended on their Park Slope fire escape, they were determined to become, if not farmers, then farm stewards.
“Now our neighbors” in New Jersey “are helping us, and we’re helping them,” Levin said.
“We had a lot of trouble getting local farmers interested in organic,” added Malya Levin, a lawyer. “Joe and Kenny were open to the idea.”
That would be Joe L. Bartee and his grandson Kenneth Bartee — who are the K & J of K & J Organic Farms. This is their second year working nearly 50 acres that the Levins either inherited or purchased along Gershal Avenue.
In lieu of rent, the Levins accept a portion of the crops, which they then sell to raise money for ACRe. To move more of what they produce, Joe and Kenny recently set up a stand on the Levin property; Bartee family members are selling tomatoes, greens, sweet potatoes, okra, carrots, beans, and other crops that have flourished this year despite the long, hot, too-much-rain summer.
The Bartees farm according to organic guidelines — a labor-intensive approach that avoids the use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides. It’s a challenge, but the Bartees have been willing to give it a try.
“The soil is better in some spots than others, but none of it is bad,” said Kenny, who remembers sitting on his grandfather’s lap as a child and “driving” the tractor on about 100 rented acres that Joe farmed for decades beginning in the 1970s.
Joe, Kenny, and family friend Andrew Swinton, who call themselves “the trifecta,” do pretty much everything but the picking, for which they hire seasonal workers. “Joe’s the brains, and me and Kenny do the footwork,” said Swinton, of Millville.
“William (Levin) is a good guy,” Kenny said. “When we first started (K & J), funding was a little crazy, and he helped us out. And when he needs something, we help him out.”
Recently, for example, Kenny cleared debris on a vacant field for William, and Malya sought buyers for a quantity of green beans Joe needed to sell quickly, before their freshness faded.
COVID-19 has put an end, for now, to the lively schedule of religious services and cultural gatherings the Levins organized through ACRe. They intend to eventually resume the religious and cultural programs, and have spun off the farm as a separate commercial enterprise.
“We are working with the Bartees because they have the expertise to manage farmland on our scale, and are willing to (adhere to) organic regulations,” Malya Levin said. “Both of (the partners) need to create something that is economically profitable through this farming operation. That shared goal is the basis of our partnership.”
Joe Bartee, 77, earned his expertise growing up in the third generation of a Georgia farming family. After moving to South Jersey in 1960, he worked two full-time jobs — auto mechanic and farmer — for 36 years. He’d been retired for 11 years before launching the new venture with Kenny, a father of seven who had held manufacturing and auto-related jobs and wanted to build something for his family.
“Since we opened the stand, so many people are coming in, and coming from out of town,” he said. “We have a vision for the stand, having maybe a second location.” As a lively new logo, bright orange T-shirts and a sleek promotional video attest, K & J is building a brand. “We want to see how far we can go with it,” said Kenny.
His grandfather, whom family and friends call Bo, said: “I like preparing the ground, and all the other aspects of farming, except the most important part — the marketing. I grow the nicest crops and take them to market and ask what they’re going to give me for it.”
Joe is pleased that the Levins have helped find new markets for his produce — which can fetch far higher prices in Brooklyn than in Pittsgrove. The partnership “has been good so far,” Joe added.
The Levins have friends among a new generation of Jewish farmers and food purveyors in New York and Philadelphia. Mordechai Schram, a kosher chef and the owner a pickling business called Hamutzim (Hebrew for pickles) in Philly, recently purchased 100 pounds of green tomatoes from the Bartees.
Pickled, the tomatoes were “amazing,” Schram said. “The texture, the size, the flavor. We’re hoping to do more business with them.”
Nate, aka “Farmer Nate” Kleinman, who co-founded the Experimental Farm Network in Philadelphia and farms in Elmer, New Jersey, recently bought okra from the Bartees and pickled it, with delicious results. He sees the partnership as an updated version of the “little-known history” of cross-cultural cooperation in South Jersey.
To Kenny Bartee, it’s the right way to grow.
“If everybody is doing what they’re supposed to do and help each other,” he said, “the world would be a better place.”
©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer