There are family businesses that pass through one generation and fade away, and then there are those that become local institutions. Sitting quietly on a large expanse of land on Ridge Road is , a fixture in South Brunswick since 1913. The farm has passed all the way through five generations of the Von Thun family, as they approach their 100th anniversary next year.
"Henry Von Thun came over from Germany and bought the farm in 1913 as a homestead kind of thing, growing potatoes and grains," said Cindy Von Thun, whose husband Bob Von Thun Jr. took over running the farm during the 1980's. "It was a lot different then, obviously, with more acreage, some of which has been sold off over the years."
After purchasing 90-acres in 1913, Henry Von Thun then passed the farm along to his son Henry Jr., continuing the family tradition. This started a trend where each generation added new wrinkles to put their own stamp on the farm. But for many years, the Von Thun's continued to produce potatoes and grains farmed by Henry Jr.’s son, Bob Von Thun Sr.
In 1986, Bob Jr. returned home from college and saw that major changes were necessary for the farm to continue to survive.
"After a couple of bad years growing potatoes, Bobby came home and said we need to try something different because potatoes aren't working anymore," Cindy said. "He said let's diversify. Let's do fruits and vegetables. So the farm market began, and we've kind of grown ever since.
"Things were simpler back then. We did most of the harvesting ourselves and the retail farm market didn't have much hired help, but as things grow they change."
When Bob Jr. took over the farm, more expansion took place beyond the launch of the farm market and pick-your-own produce fields in 1986. Von Thun's added greenhouses in 1989, where they now grow thousands of plants in 15,000-square-feet of space. In 1995, the Von Thuns expanded into the fall season. They grow thousands of fall mums, thousands of pansies, added an apple orchard, and acres of pumpkins. Von Thun Farms has since started offering hayrides, pony rides, a huge corn maze, the annual weekend and.
The focus on providing more than just produce and making the farm a family destination has been vital to Von Thun's surviving during down economic times.
"Agro-tourism has been a growing trend in the agriculture industry, because if you had to depend just on farming how successful would you be?" Cindy said. "Mother nature isn't a very good business partner. When we started the farm market it was two families, Bob (Jr.) and I, and his parents. So we had to support two families on the nickels and dimes we made from selling produce. Then (Bob Sr.) retired, and now our son wants to farm so we'll be supporting two families again. Agro-tourism is what people want when they're looking for a place to go. They want to pick their own produce and they like the whole farm experience. So we keep adding new activities.”
In addition to barnyard shows for kids, bouncy rides and corn cannons, Cindy said the addition of the "Rutgers Corn Maize" in the fall has helped expose the farm to a whole new audience. The "Rutgers Corn Maize" is a six-acre, three-mile maze full of twists and turns, with games and riddles included along the way.
"We had a couple from the Midwest come down for the corn maze because it's a hobby for them and they told us how much they enjoyed it," Cindy said. "It's really cool to know people enjoy the maze and that's one of the things that sets us apart."
Von Thun's also started a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. This allows people to purchase a share of vegetables from the farm. For 18 weeks during the growing season, participants receive a package of produce with six to eight different vegetables per week. Participants can also purchase a half-share with five to six types of vegetables per week.
"People pay a fee and get more than what they paid for. We're getting a lot of younger families involved in this because of the trend of buying local and eating healthy," Cindy said. "People get excited to see what vegetables they're going to get each week."
With the abbreviated winter, Von Thun's is looking forward to the opening of the greenhouses in May and the farm market in June. Kid's Day will be held on May 12, and the annual Strawberry Festival is set for June 2 and 3.
But after five generations and nearly 100 years, it's the people in South Brunswick and the surrounding area who have helped Von Thun's become more than just a farm.
"We hope the whole experience here helps make memories for the families that come back year after year, which is why we keep adding things to make a local tradition," Cindy said. "When we started the farm market, we had our dedicated local customers who we got to know. Now those customers come back with their grandkids. Some people pride themselves in the sense that there's a farm in town, and that support is so important to local agriculture. But when you get to develop a relationship with the people it's different. When you hear people say my family has been coming here for awhile, it's a good feeling knowing what we do has been appreciated for a couple of different generations."
Von Thun's Country Farm Market is located at 505 Ridge Road in Monmouth Junction. Click here to visit their web site.