On a typical morning in Cape May, vacationers lazily roll out of bed. The smell of bacon fills the air from local restaurants. The beach quickly fills up with brightly colored umbrellas. Just two miles away at Beach Plum Farm, produce is being harvested and Berkshire pigs are enjoying a hearty breakfast. Chickens squawk as their eggs are collected from the coop and taken to the Blue Pig Tavern and the Ebbitt Room for the daily preparations. Visitors to Beach Plum Farm often times find it hard to believe that this secluded, 62-acre agricultural oasis is located just a bike ride away from the summer bustle of historic Cape May. While farms are nothing new to America’s first seaside resort, the effort to preserve them has grown in recent years.
In a newspaper article from the Philadelphia Inquirer on May 8, 1909, the author claimed that in Cape May “The flowers and foliage make this resort particularly delightful….it is one of the blessings that it is on the mainland and has all of the advantages of seashore and country, a rich farming section being immediately at its doors.” During the 1930s, when farms across the United States were struggling through The Great Depression, the lima bean was Cape May’s saving grace. Cape May’s sandy soil lent itself to the popular, nutritional legume and a processing plant nearby helped to stimulate the local economy. By the 1950s, the areas including West Cape May and Cape May were home to 125 lima bean farms.
By 1992- there were 4 lima bean farms that remained. Hanover foods stopped processing the lima beans in Cape May because no one wanted to eat them any more. Lima beans fell out of popularity in the American diet, much of the farmland became developed, and the only thing marking the distinction of Cape May as a lima bean and farming capital was the locals that claimed it as such. When the New York Times published an article about the West Cape May lima bean festival in 1997, the Rea family was one of the few that remained harvesting the outdated seed.
In the 20th century, the land that is currently known as Beach Plum Farm was owned by the Rea family for Lima and soybean production. It was also used as grazing land for Cape May Dairy. By the time Cape Resorts acquired the land in 2007, it had become fallow, and was surrounded by protected Wetlands. Old aerial photographs from the 1930s and 1950s proved that a road through the protective marsh existed. The path was reestablished and permits were obtained to restore the farm road.
Eight seasons later, Beach Plum Farm thrives as a sustainable farm, feeding three restaurants in Cape May. Eight hundred chickens provide hundreds of eggs harvested daily. The Berkshire pigs raised at the farm ensure that the meat being used in the restaurants is healthy and raised free from any antibiotics. Hundreds of fruits and vegetables are harvested and appear on the menu throughout the year. In 2014, Beach Plum Farm established a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) egg program, where patrons were invited to purchase a subscription for fresh eggs. The Blue Pig Tavern, Ebbitt Room, Rusty Nail, and the Cape May community thrive with the fresh food that Beach Plum Farm provides daily.
Cape Resorts co-managing partner Curtis Bashaw said that the birth of Beach Plum Farm was an effort to preserve New Jersey’s distinction as the Garden State. As a sustainable farm, it operates with an environmental conscience and a consideration for the community to which it belongs.
Despite what we may think of today when we think of Cape May, the farmland on the Island is experiencing a renaissance. Historically, farmers have not only found a home here, but a welcome escape from a way of life that is not for the faint of heart. In 1900, farmers throughout New Jersey took part in a tradition known as “Salt Water Day” where they would abandon their daily duties and head to the beach. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote in August of that year, “All roads ended at the seashore, and carriages of all sorts were pressed into service to convey the farming population to their mecca.”
*Thanks to Ben Miller for providing historical materials.