Necessity is the mother of invention, and reinvention, at Backer Farm in Mendham. The nonagenarian farm started out as a honeybee and dairy farm in 1927, and for years pasteurized, bottled, and sold its milk directly to customers throughout then-rural Morris County. A change in laws required the farm to sell its milk whole-sale and buy it back in bottles, thus eliminating the profit margins, according to family member Fred Backer. To stay afloat and feed his eight children, Backer’s father Frederick Backer shifted into the equine business in 1971, boarding horses and growing hay and corn to feed them. About 10 years ago, they had to move away from the horse business to grow crops and raise cattle to sell them in a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, model.
“It wasn’t necessarily a choice to move away from equine. The recreational horse business kind of died unless you had an indoor arena, and that was cost prohibitive,” said Stuart Backer, another a son of Frederick.
As their father aged, the children faced a reality: without him working, the farm wasn’t profitable; without enough profit, they would have to sell the farm. If they sold the farm, their father—who was born in the house there and worked it all his life—would be displaced.
They sold the farm’s development rights to New Jersey through the State Agricultural Development Committee’s Farmland Preservation Program, which exists to set aside and protect New Jersey’s farmland for the use, education, and enjoyment of future generations. For farm owners, selling the development rights to their farmland can help them meet their financial goals, providing them with the capital to expand their existing operations; eliminate or reduce their debt load; or further their estate or retirement planning.
For the Backers, it was to support their dad.
“The major benefit of it was we didn’t have to sell the farm to maintain my father. His first and last night were in that house, in the same room. Selling the development rights provided cash where we didn’t have to sell off the farm and subdivide. It sustained him through the years where he was unable to work the way he needed to work,” Stuart Backer said.
Ten years ago, the farm was taken over by Derick, Fred’s son and Frederick’s grandson, who’s led the transition from horses to crops. Though Backer Farm was grandfathered in, horse boarding isn’t an approved farming activity per the SADC Farmland Preservation restrictions; and now that it’s part of the Farmland Preservation program, Derick and all future owners of the farm must comply with rules that non-preserved farms don’t have to honor.
“We have to abide by all the rules, we have to be constantly thinking of everything we do, we have to make sure it complies with our deed of easement,” Stuart Backer said.
The next iteration of Backer Farms is awaiting approvals, but it’s something that the SADC has awarded approval for to one other preserved farm: a true farm-to-glass brewery.
The plan is to turn between seven and 10 of the farm’s 41 acres into fields of barley, one of the main ingredients in most beer—for every 400 pounds of ingredients, 350 pounds are a grain such as barley, explained Frank Pinto, Backer Farm’s project manager and a spokesperson for the project, who is also the former Morris County agriculture board director. The Backers will then send the barley to a maltster, a company that processes grain into malt, and at first will likely purchase malted grains from other sources, too. Each brew requires five or six malts, which poses a logistical challenge for the farm at first. Ultimately, though, they plan to grow all the grains needed for the beer they’ll produce. When folks drink beer in the tasting room, they’ll gaze out the window at what makes the beer possible.
“When you think about dairies back then, it’s very similar to a CSA today. You bought your milk from your local dairy. Then they delivered it. Now the brewery is kind of returning to that business model – folks will be returning to us, and we’ll be giving beer out to them,” Pinto said. “It’s a modern version of a dairy farm in some ways.”
When a farm changes course, capital expenditures are required. Switching to crops? Better build a green house. Switching to cattle? Better get some fence. The United States Department of Agriculture offers cost share grants for farming projects, but Pinto said that the USDA prices are based on pre-COVID costs.
“I have another client [who’s] having to decide, ‘do I have to sell off my beef cows until I have the capital?’ That’s where you very often see farms continuing to do the same thing. It’s the capital expenditure that’s the hold us,” Pinto said.
Zoning posed another potential issue, as Backer Farms exists within a residential zone. While New Jersey’s breweries are zoned differently based on municipality, most exist only in industrial or downtown zones. Luckily for the Backers, Mendham passed a Right to Farm ordinance in 1998 to protect farmers against unnecessary township regulations and private nuisance suits when they’re just trying to keep afloat. It’s in part due to the Right to Farm ordinance that the Backer Brewing Project has continued to move forward with necessary approvals, including
Mendham Township’s Zoning Board of Adjustment’s approval of the project on Feb. 22.
Still, switching things up can be scary.
“The biggest thing you’re moving into uncharted territory. The changeover comes with the uncertainty. We didn’t know if the horse business was going to work. My father started driving a school bus when he sold the cows so he had insurance for the family, and we converted the barn to a horse boarding operation—two, three horses and we built from there,” Stuart Backer
said. “It’s the same thing when we had to pull the plug on the horse boarding operation, that it just didn’t make sense anymore. It was ‘what’re we going to do? what make sense? We’re
going to have to build a greenhouse, we’re going to have to build a retail space.’ Before that, all our retail was sold at a table on the side of the road. It’s the challenge of starting new on
something you haven’t done before. It’s scary but farming is something we’re passionate about.”
Reinvention has saved the Backer farm before, and they’re hopeful it’ll do it again with Backer Brewing Project. There are a couple of houses on the property, the walls of one have cradled the youth of four generations: it’s where Derick Backer’s raising his son Frederick Backer IV. Stuart Backer estimates that the brewery will start serving suds in summer of 2023, making time for approvals, a facilities build-out, growing and processing the grain, brewing the beer, and finally, making sure all ducks are in a row to follow the rules that govern both New Jersey’s breweries and its preserved farmland.
“The downside of the farmland preservation is also the good side. The last thing anyone of us would’ve wanted to do would be drive down Ironia Road and see a subdivision of 20 houses.
That would have killed any one of us,” Stuart Backer said. “The downside is that we have to find a way to keep this going and make it work in northern New Jersey and Morris County where it may not fit. The farm doesn’t necessarily fit here anymore. But it’s ours, and we have to figure out what to do to keep it going.”