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WEST WINDSOR — Farmers, educators, backyard vegetable gardeners and those who support New Jersey’s farming community gathered at the Boathouse in Mercer County Park to celebrate the state’s diversified agricultural communities and key players in those communities at the New Jersey Agriculture Society’s Taste of New Jersey gala.

Robert Swanekamp of Kube-Pak in Allentown and president of the New Jersey Agricultural Society, founded in 1781, served as emcee with Ag Society Executive Director Al Murray presenting awards to outstanding agricultural achievers in the state.

Four years ago, Sonya Harris decided that the 500 students at Dorothy L. Bullock Elementary School in Glassboro needed a garden to show them how plants grow and to encourage them to eat fresh, healthy food. She wanted the garden to be a space where teachers could use gardening to teach reading, writing, social studies, and science.

“We are the Garden State, why does every school not have a garden? Why are we not teaching our children how to grow their own food, how to be self-sufficient and how to be healthy from that,” Harris continued to thunderous applause from the audience. Century Awards were presented to Hensel Farms in Milmay, in between Vineland and May’s Landing, and Fralinger Orchards of Bridgeton.

“The Hensels are a wonderful family and they’re all about what is good about agriculture in our state,” Murray told the crowd. “Mr. Hensel when I first met him was involved in so many different boards and organizations, he was always the voice of reason.

In accepting his Century Award, Eric Hensel told the crowd, “When you’re 80 years old and you’re celebrating something that’s been around for 100 years it might be the last time.” Hensel Farms was established in 1908 in Milmay, Atlantic County.

“I was a history major in college and they wanted us to do a final report or thesis on something that was important to us and had to do with history. So I did a thesis on our family farm and was able to trace the land all the way back to the time when it was owned by William Penn. It was under British ownership at that time and I was able to go that far back through the historical society,” he added.

“The more recent history is when my great grandfather took over and he purchased it, he was a real estate agent-farmer and he purchased this little piece of property, he was buying and selling properties and doing some farming, and when he purchased this property it was only 50 acres,” Fralinger continued. “It came with a house and my grandparents lived in it, it’s still a viable house.” He added the house had no electricity until the early 1950’s.

“We enjoy what we’re doing very much. I hope the farming industry can stay viable in the state of New Jersey. I’ve got my doubts that it’s going to stay the same, as things are changing rapidly now, but I think if we can get enough people interested, like Sonya the teacher showing the children how to raise crops, I believe this will stay and the Garden State will remain green,” Fralinger told the crowd.

The Gold Medallion Award was presented to Richard E. Nieuwenhuis, owner of Scenic Valley Greenhouses in White Township, Warren County. Nieuwenhuis, a native of now mostly-suburban Passaic County, has been the owner-operator of the company for the last four decades.

“That allowed us a seat at the Ag Convention, and through the process of different things I was nominated through the North Jersey Caucus to represent the nursery and greenhouse industry on the state board and that opened up a whole new life and perspective for me on the state Board of Agriculture,” he said.

After thanking his brother, daughters and wife for being at the awards gala — and tearfully thanking his wife, Trudy — Nieuwenhuis said all involved in agriculture in the Garden State should be proud of groups like the New Jersey Farm Bureau and the Ag Society.