How Ironbound Farm is Working to Restore and Revive Underserved Populations

Charles Rosen, CEO of Ironbound Hard Cider and New Ark Farms, discusses his approach to regenerative agriculture and restorative hiring practices.

Charles Rosen, CEO of Ironbound Hard Cider and New Ark Farms. Photo courtesy of Kira Buxton

Once you get him going, and it doesn’t take much, Charles Rosen is an inspiring person to listen to (witness this November 2018 TEDx talk). The founder of both Hunterdon County’s New Ark Farms and Ironbound Hard Cider, Rosen started Ironbound with a new consideration: To build sustainable communities with restorative hiring practices. He does not shy away from, and in fact actively pursues, hiring the formerly incarcerated, as well as veterans, immigrants, and those with special needs—all part of what he calls the “chronically underemployed” population.

The goal isn’t some lofty social experiment. Rosen’s goal is nothing less than to change how we do business, bringing food and drink systems back to a supportive, mutually beneficial community level that’s also profitable (and, ideally, self-perpetuating). Inevitably, his ideas bother, and even scare, some people. But as the Covid era showcases the fatal pitfalls of our national food system, and as civil unrest in the wake of the murder of George Floyd continues to roil social change, a business model like Ironbound and New Ark Farms seems both hugely timely and highly practical—community-oriented, transmission-minimal, relationship-based, socially restorative.

We caught up with Rosen, and asked him where he sees something like the Ironbound model fitting into the future. He had a lot to say. “The ultimate goal is the human side of repair.”

Crew chief James Williams. Photo courtesy of Kira Buxton

Table Hopping: You founded New Ark Farms in 2011 and launched Ironbound in 2015, partly as a way to address issues like systemic injustice and to create a local, community-oriented, closed sourcing model. In more ways than one, your vision must feel especially relevant right now?
Charles Rosen: It’s interesting to have this conversation at this moment. Emerging out of this really horrible crisis, I’m seeing an opportunity to create more closed food systems, local systems that support New Jersey farmers, value-add producers, and consumers. I’ve spent 10-plus years focusing on building a local food community and a community-based business, but I don’t know that it’s ever resonated as impactfully as it does now.

TH: Speaking of “now,” especially as you’re working with the governor’s office, you must have a sense of how much Covid-19 is impacting New Jersey communities. Is the outlook bleak? Lopsided?
CR: Because of Covid, and nobody knows how much of this is permanent, 75 percent of minority- and women-owned businesses have shut down. We don’t know yet what’s permanent, [but] the estimate is well over 50 percent. And 75 percent of the people that have been furloughed or put on unemployment are people of color.

TH: You started Ironbound with a commitment to employ the “chronically underemployed,” including veterans and those with special needs as well as the formerly incarcerated. Why?
CR: I wanted to prove that a for-profit business could actually care about community development, human and environmental repair, and still make money. It’s an old idea, but I wanted to revive the idea that businesses should have an obligation to the community in which they reside. As a country, we shifted from being a manufacturing-based economy to a professional services economy, moved all of our working class jobs offshore. We devastated the communities in which those business resided. Look at Newark.

TH: Speaking of, the city itself seems to have influenced your business model, building around its needs, including hiring the formerly incarcerated. How did you get there?
CR: When I started my work, more than one in three Black men in Newark had spent time incarcerated. Less than eight percent of the jobs in Newark were held by Newark residents. I zeroed in on the idea that if you wanted to build Newark up from within, you had to look at the criminal justice system. You had to work in partnership with the people of Newark, including the incarcerated.

TH: Incarceration has come up recently again as a disproportionate and even deeply prejudiced practice in our country. Do you have any perspective on this?
CR: In our country, we have five percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population, and 80 percent of them are people of color. When I started Ironbound, coming into Newark, at first I was the typical social justice warrior… It was horrible! But even so, when we started there, 100 percent of our employees were returning citizens.

TH: You do more than hire returning citizens, though. You provide training classes, counseling, even commuting costs. From an employer perspective, that’s above-and-beyond, expensive, too. Why?
CR: I thought all I had to do was provide living wage jobs. The reality is that job is just the beginning. These men and women have had no support in terms of mental illness, drug addiction, family reorientation. They come back to a community and it’s illegal to live in Section 8 Housing on parole, illegal to work around open alcohol—they can’t be ticket-takers at the Prudential Center. They can’t work at restaurants as anything but a dishwasher. And then any court fees, penalties, fines, child support, alimony, anything that was due and owing when you went in, on the day you’re out, the clock starts ticking. So you can’t live anywhere, can’t get a good job, and you owe all this money! You almost have no choice but to go back to gang activity—and the gangs know this. Parole knows this. It’s a revolving door.

TH: You opened Ironbound in 2015 but began developing the model much earlier, is that correct?
CR: I started New Ark Farms [the agriculture side of Ironbound] in 2011, 2012. I also spent time during those years working with a professor at Columbia [University], building a workforce development curriculum.

Orchardist Jacob Kim. Photo courtesy of Kira Buxton

TH: How did you end up doing a cidery, of all things, and in Newark?
CR: In those early years, I didn’t know the cider business, but I learned it. It was the earliest industry in Newark. I thought, “There’s this great Jersey story—hard cider.” Newark hard cider, specifically, it was considered the “Champagne of hard ciders.” George Washington, Thomas Jefferson—they preferred Newark hard cider over any other in Colonial America. Another great story, in typical Jersey fashion: because it was known as the “Champagne of ciders,” it was relabeled and sold as Champagne throughout the colonies.

We went on a hunt, found these really famous, thought-to-be-extinct apples originating from New Jersey, called Harrison apples. That became the core of our orcharding practice.

TH: Formerly incarcerated people aren’t legally allowed to work near open alcohol. How do you manage that with a cidery?
CR: I have two companies operating side by side: one is New Ark Farms and one is Jersey Cider Works. Returning citizens work for the agriculture company, not Jersey Cider Works. But there we have opportunities for other chronically-underemployed people, veterans, immigrants, people with special needs. One of my other goals as an attorney is helping people get appeals, get exempted from that rule. If we can get a returning citizen exempted to work around alcohol. Whether an individual stays with us or not, once she’s been exempted, she can be a hostess at a restaurant.

TH: Why is supportive employment so important to returning citizens?
CR: There’s a human repair side that ultimately benefits the community economically. Most of the reentry programs I’ve seen, federal or state, they don’t build in the time that transformative work takes. You cannot shift from being in a state of chronic poverty to being this secure emboldened member of the community without a huge amount of time and support. Really, what I came to see was our approach to agriculture, regenerative agriculture, it’s all about creating a healthy ecosystem. How do you create a system of diverse organisms that support each other? As each gets strong, the whole system gets stronger. I literally had an epiphany out there on the farm: “That’s what community building should look like!” We live in an “us versus them” society, rich versus poor, democrat versus republican, Black versus white. But we can learn from nature. We can learn from regenerative agriculture. It’s integrated diversity. My success should be connected to yours.

TH: I read you want to export the “model” of Ironbound far afield, but not necessarily the product?
CR: We decided we’ll never take Ironbound beyond Pennsylvania and New York. We’re going to launch Ironbound in New York soon. We were supposed to in April. We felt we could stay regional and local without compromising anything. We didn’t have to make a shift to concentrate. A lot of the cider companies that started with fresh-pressed ingredients began shifting to concentrate to take their liquids national. We will not do that. We keep our sourcing and our employment local, our practices 100 percent intact.

But exporting the model is something I’m really excited about. How do we create a national network of local or regional plays, where you’re supporting local farmers, the chronically underemployed, and creating a liquid that is born of place? The reason we’re a cidery is because of Jersey’s history with cider. But we could open a brewery in Milwaukee, make moonshine in Virginia, having our same community-based model.

TH: As terrible as the pandemic is, might it be an opportunity to pursue that?
CR: We’re seeing massive damage within the national and global food system. People want local. This is a moment. People care where their food is from. People are flocking to our farm. They don’t want to be in a supermarket. It’s a really neat moment for New Jersey specifically. I just had a really good conversation with Senator Booker’s office. He just presented a bill last week empowering states to be able to have more right processing animals. Right now, as a New Jersey farmer, you have to drive your pigs and cows four hours to get to a slaughterhouse.

TH: Do you feel renewed at all in your goals as a company?
CR: Our entire goal has always been to be a proof of concept for other businesses. One thing we’ve come to understand is this: for decades, we’ve trained people in our country to think food is supposed to be cheap and plentiful. Chicken for 99 cents from McDonald’s. The problem with that model is it’s built on the backs of our underserved, primarily people of color and migrant workers. Right now we have private prisons in California and other states lending inmates to corporate farms to pick our food because we don’t allow migrant workers into the country anymore. It’s literally slavery. We the taxpayers are funding private prisons so they can lend Black inmates to farms to pick avocados. It’s unimaginably heartbreaking.

TH: Moving forward, what is your outlook?
CR: Although I’m terrified of where we stand from an economic and health perspective with Covid, I’m outrageously optimistic because people are re-calibrating around what they value. We’re asking “What does it mean to be part of a community?”

I’m in conversation with many local restaurants, asking “How do you come out of this thing?” Like I mentioned, already 50 percent are shuttered forever… We’re trying to figure out how to create connections between farmers and restaurants, essentially collapse the restaurant distribution model.

TH: Why would that prove helpful?
CR: There’s a 34 percent premium they get to transport food from a farm to a restaurant. But if we create partnerships between restaurants and farms, and value-add producers, they can split that 30 percent. A local food-based economy supports the most under-supported members of our community. I started with the idea of returning citizens in mind, but the second leading cause of death for farmers, after tractor accidents, is suicide. They make 14 cents out of every food dollar. The farmer has no choice but to kill himself because the bank is going to take his farm.

TH: How can consumers support New Ark Farms and Ironbound right now?
CR: At our farm in Hunterdon County, both our [outdoor] cider garden is open. And it’s local food. For our flatbreads, we’ll pull vegetables from the farm that morning. It’s a really nice way to eat outside and get some of our limited-edition ciders and seltzers.

TH: Is there anything you, as a responsible business owner, would ask the public to do, to help, in this era?
CR: Our biggest ask is to support other local businesses. New Jersey is truly the Garden State for a reason. Go enjoy it.

Ironbound Farm is open from noon—8pm, Friday through Sunday (make a reservation online). You can also visit the Ironbound Farmers Market from 10am to 5pm, Friday through Sunday. New Ark Farms is located at 360 Route 579, Asbury; 973-747-8724. You can buy Ironbound Hard Cider (and hard seltzer) at retail locations throughout the state. In our conversation, Rosen also shared he recently assisted in the launching of the Hunterdon County 579 Trail, an agritourism trail along Route 579 that features local farms, farmers markets, and wineries.

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