New Era of Sustainable Farming at Duke Farms

As Duke Farms recently began to refocus and shift our farming operations, it was essential to determine how a “new” farming program will operate and to identify the specific strategies and actions that can be taken to develop a truly sustainable farming venture.

To best understand the direction and mission of the sustainable agricultural program at Duke Farms, it is critical that we look to historical and agricultural land use to understand the present conditions and how to move forward in the future.

Historical/Agricultural Land Use at Duke Farms

The land on which Duke Farms exists has a long history of agriculture. The precolonial landscape was not an unmanaged “Eden” as is often promulgated.  Indigenous peoples of North America “managed” the landscapes to benefit first their hunting and gathering lifestyle and later small-scale farming.  The Naraticong Tribe of the Lenni-Lenape once peopled the land.  They lived in small, semi-permanent villages and were as much farmers as hunters.  They first Europeans farmers in New Jersey were the Dutch and Walloons in New Netherland on the west bank of the Hudson and the Swedes and Finns near the Delaware River and Bay.  The Dutch migration up the Raritan River began in the late 1660’s, where they began to clear larger acreage in the floodplains and beyond.  The rich soils of the riparian clearings were prime land to produce crops on while the uplands of the Raritan Valley had much lower quality red shale soils.  Once the forests were removed, the fertility that resided in the woodland soil was quickly depleted by the middle of the eighteenth century except for in floodplains which had occasional fresh silt laid down by receding floodwaters.  By the 1840’s, the growing use of factory-made agricultural machinery increased farmer’s need for cash and encouraged commercial farming which further taxed the land.



1860 Farm Map, Courtesy of Rutgers Special Collections


First, it is important to understand the paradigm of farming at Duke Farms.   What is the current paradigm in farming and does it make sense for to follow that paradigm here at Duke Farms?  The current paradigm in the US farming is one that relies on large machinery and chemical, petroleum-based fertilizers and has been the modus operandi since the 1940’s. This style of farming is extractive and damages natural capital (soil fertility, beneficial insect populations, surface and groundwater quality, etc.).  Therefore, Duke Farms has a farming operation that produces healthy food using farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, human communities, wildlife habitat and domestic animal welfare.  This form of agriculture allows production of healthful food without compromising future generations’ ability to do the same.

Once this paradigm shift was identified, the purpose of the agricultural program at Duke Farms was created – the development and maintenance of a vigorous, economically viable farming operation that conserves and restores wildlife and natural resources while respecting ecological principles.  This is important for many reasons but is critical for Duke Farms to honor the will and instructions left by Doris Duke.  In  referring to the “agricultural lands”,  Doris Duke’s  will explicitly states, “In all events, I direct that this property be used solely for agricultural and horticultural purposes, including research, and that this property be used for the exclusive purpose of maintaining and protecting the wildlife located on the property.”  The intent of the program is to stay in keeping with our benefactor’s intent.

Which leads us to the principles/philosophies of the Duke Farms agricultural program.The major guiding principles include:

  • All farming activities at Duke Farms will build soil and not be extractive. (soil health)
  • All farming activities at DF will be wildlife-friendly and promote biodiversity
  • Transfer of Knowledge – All farming activities shall strive to be economically-viable so that the lessons may be shared with others
  • Integrated Pest, Disease and Weed Management -minimize toxics, and maximize the use of organic or biodynamic methods
  • Conserve Natural Resources (soil, water, energy, genetic resources, etc.)
  • Properly Manage Ecological Relationships
  • Diversify (agricultural practices, economics)
  • Manage Whole Systems
  • Maximize Long-Term Benefits
  • Follow Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic

What good are these principles and philosophies without a formal program that models and teaches these best management practices to our agricultural practitioners? Our mission at Duke Farms is to serve as a leader in in environmental stewardship and sustainability while inspiring people to become informed stewards of the land. In sustainable agriculture, this means that we need to educate and support our beginning sustainable farmers. One of these ways we do so is through the Sustainable Farming Enterprise. Keep reading as we explore this program the upcoming weeks.



Western grassland fields are home to both wildlife and grazing cattle




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One Response to New Era of Sustainable Farming at Duke Farms


    Great decision! If only more organizations did this, we might be able to slow down the damage we have done to our planet.

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