All images courtesy Ironbound Farms

Inside the New Jersey Cider Farm Helping Formerly Incarcerated People Get Jobs

Founder Charles Rosen says, “you can be a for-profit business and at the same time help the chronically unemployed and repair the environment.”

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Oct 4 2018, 8:14pm

All images courtesy Ironbound Farms

On a damp day in Asbury, New Jersey, Charles Rosen helps me climb over a fire pit and onto a grassy slope overlooking a field where a red tractor hums away, clearing the land for a new crop of apple cider trees. We’ve been roaming around the farm all day, but we’ve finally tracked down James, one of the workers who helps maintain the land. He and I take a seat on a picnic table behind the soon-to-be finished cider tap room. James is still wearing the green netted hat that covers his face when he’s tending the nearby beehives. Though he looks closer to 25, he’s 37, and this is his first legit, on-the-books job. Up until about six months ago, James had been dealing drugs in Newark, while working part time on the farm. But he’s married and has kids, and knew that he had to clean up his act if he wanted to stay in their lives.

“I worked hard to elevate myself,” James says. “I could run this farm myself. I can grow my own vegetables.” His serious gaze dissolves and he laughs. “I’m prepared for the purge.”

James is one of the many formerly incarcerated people who help run Ironbound Farms and its companion property New Arc. Rosen, who owns the properties, is a lawyer, but his business interests might be characterized as frenzied: Originally from Canada, he ran the ad agency that introduced Mike’s Hard Lemonade to the United States (“Sorry, America,” he jokes), produced movies, and then entered politics, running the campaigns of several high-level politicians. He decided to run for Congress, but abandoned the idea in the exploratory phase. Four years later, in 2015, Rosen bought the farm and built the winery that would become Ironbound.

But cider is just the vehicle through which Rosen can pursue his true vision: To “start a business in Newark that is focused on workforce development and urban renewal.” Rosen doesn’t just speak, he monologues, TED Talk-style, saying things like, “you can be a for-profit business and at the same time help the chronically unemployed and repair the environment.”

These proclamations sound a bit like the Utopian musings of an eccentric businessman wealthy enough to try to enact them. Ironbound has only been in operation for three years (and the tap room and kitchen opens to the public early this month), so Rosen has yet to find out if his grand theories about environmentally sustainable and socially conscious businesses will actually turn out to be lucrative. Yet, he’s already contemplating the moment when he’ll be able to pass his gospel along to other small business owners.

“One thing that is critically important to everything we are working on is building a proof of concept,” he explains. “We are trying to prove to conventional orchards that you can be a high yield farm that pays living wages, and treats people with dignity, and you can still make money.”

Can you, though? We don’t stay on the topic of money long. With his typical dreamy disposition, Rosen drifts away from practical questions, like financial solvency, and returns to his abstract ideas about what Ironbound represents to New Jersey. He also can’t help but take the opportunity to make a dig at Trump.

“To me, Trump personifies what success looks like in this country,” he says, but he means it disparagingly. “It’s a winner-takes-all zero-sum game, which is built into the notion that we live in scarcity. He’s always [saying] who the winner is and who the loser is, and that’s a destructive way to think about building community.”

The first step in the community building process? Hire people like James. People with a record can’t work near open alcohol containers, (“Because we have a system that makes it as hard as possible for people to reintegrate into society,” Rosen remarks), so he established New Arc farms, which exists on the same property as Ironbound but is independent of the cidery. There, his formerly incarcerated employees are free to grow other produce (much of which they bring home to their families in Newark and Jersey City), maintain the land, watch over the bees—whatever the farm needs to run smoothly.

“We also integrate fiscal literacy and emotional intelligence into our everyday work practice,” Rosen explains. “We can’t separate the way we treat our employees with how we treat the land.”

In the beginning, Rosen had delusions of grandeur—perhaps even a slight white savior complex—thinking that he could singlehandedly rescue every ex-con in New Jersey.

“That is the most arrogant, disgusting thing. Who the fuck am I to think I could help these people?” Rosen recalls now. “Only when I started thinking how James’s wellbeing could impact mine, did things start to click.”

Rosen seemed to recognize that if his employees feel valued and protected, they’ll work harder, and the farm will thrive. So he implemented hiring practices that might cost him more, but that will benefit him in the long run because his employees are happier. He pays $15/hour, plus the company covers the cost of expenses, like those associated with the commuting to the farm. Crucially, employees all receive health benefits. It’s a common platitude that a good boss treats his employees like family, but in Rosen’s case, the intimacy is real: James, and another worker, Derek, are so close to Rosen and his family, that they attended his son’s bar mitzvah.

And as for the cider? Well, for one thing, it will probably never be distributed nationally. Rosen is determined to make Ironbound a symbol of the state’s excellence. “I want to be a busted Jersey version of the Hudson valley,” he says. “Jersey has no badges. Except Bruce Springsteen.” And the Jersey Shore, I point out, helpfully.

But while he’s preoccupied with rescuing the reputation of New Jersey, Rosen also acknowledges that national distribution would mean sacrificing some of his core principles: In order to meet demand, he’d need to supplement his local, fresh pressed apple juice with concentrate. The cidermaker Cam (who started his career as a vintner in Napa Valley) told me that he now gets nauseous at even the smell of sulfur, a preservative commonly used in wine and other alcoholic beverages.

Ironbound’s infusions all come from local fruit, too. A nearby farmer approached Rosen with boxes of gooseberries, unsure of what to do with them. Rosen bought the berries, and created his limited-edition gooseberry-ginger cider. He buys 100 percent of the yield from a nearby cranberry bog, too. His generous hand stretches all the way to neighboring Pennsylvania and New York.

“I have given away thousands of cider apple trees for free to local farmers,” he explains. “A lot of the growers that we’re working with grow for companies like Mott’s, the big juice companies. But we wanted to give [farmers] a more viable revenue stream, and we’re paying them more than they get for the juice apples. It diversifies our environmental risk, too. If something happens at our farm, maybe it’s not happening at a farm upstate.”

This is a precaution Rosen is probably now glad he took: The sloping hillside on the right side of Ironbound is almost completely bare; the 6,500 cider apple trees that once grew there have been uprooted due to disease. Now, Rosen’s team is clearing the land of weeds, and replenishing the soil with nutrients so that the trees can be re-planted in 2020. In the meantime, juice from cider apples is delivered to Ironbound by Rosen’s network of farmers, already pressed.

Rosen leads me down a muddy path, to a valley below the orchard, where groups of gardeners are planting vegetation all around the banks of a large pond. The flies are so thick near the water that they fly up my nose and land in my eyes. Jared Rosenbaum and his wife, Rachel, are in charge here and they’re replanting New Jersey’s native plant life—white water lilies, irises, cardinal flowers, hibiscus. At the moment, the muddy banks are still dotted with plastic orange flags, not a blooming flower in sight, but Jared promises that the woodlands will “pop” next year. The Gentian‚ a bright, royal blue trumpet-shaped flower—is especially important to the farm’s ecology, because it supports the bee population and bees pollinate the apple trees.

Rosenbaum’s ambitious mission to revive New Jersey’s indigenous flora and fauna is another element of Rosen’s “holistic” farm. He could have eradicated the pests and disease infecting the apple trees using chemical pesticides, like Roundup, but if you start using chemicals, “on even one aspect of the farm, it affects the water, the soil, the trees—everything is connected.”

It might be easy to dismiss Rosen as a rich hippy with a pipe dream, but there is an upshot to his striking idealism. He’s not just talking about helping people. He’s doing the work. After Rosen shows me the cannery, we run into Tonya, who is taking a break near a wooden crate full of apples. We chat for a moment about how she found her way to Ironbound. After she injured her back at a previous job, she began volunteering at the farm until she became a full time employee, alongside her daughter, Princess. Tonya laughs about Rosen’s dreams of having “20 or 30 generations” of families working on the farm, but then she grows a bit more somber.

“He gave me back my freedom,” she says, and makes her way down the road to help plant flowers by the pond.