Hulu (Laozhu) Farm Feeds Community, Literally & Figuratively
By Annabelle Wang l June 7, 2021
In fiction, portals to other worlds may include fancy trap doors or wardrobes. But in real life, portals are often more simple. For scientist Zhiwei Zhu of Skillman, it is as if he transported his childhood village from China to the Great Road in Skillman—with his parents included.
Across the road from Cherry Valley Country Club with carefully manicured lawns, golf course, and exquisite manor homes in the style of Provence, complete with archways and grand stone terraces, is a simple farm. Simple, but not ordinary. It could be lifted directly from the Academy Award-winning movie Minari. Only the lead characters are Chinese, not Korean. The 60-acre patch of Montgomery Township preserved farm land sprouts rows bok choy, celtuce (wosun), garlic, Daikon radishes, and more.
The story behind the farm begins 12 years ago, when Yuekang Zhu and Chunying Wang began looking for something to do after retirement. By then, their son, Zhiwei had settled into his own life. He had moved from China to America for college, landed a job, and started a family. His parents found themselves with a lot of free time to visit him in Montgomery. That was when Zhiwei and his father saw land for sale in Skillman. It was perfect. His parents could stay in America to farm, where Zhiwei could take care of them, and he could pay them back for their support and love during his childhood by letting them fully dive into their lifelong passion.
Preserved farm land, 60 acres with a Princeton address, was going for about $800,000 back then. Helping his parents continue their livelihood on the Hulu (Laozhu) Farm in Skillman as a way of keeping their family together, connecting to their native culture, and building a Chinese community in the States… by literally feeding one. Today, the Hulu Farm boasts a wide and seasonal array of Asian and local vegetables like Chinese cantaloupe, Chinese cucumbers, heirloom tomatoes, garlic, and spring onions, among many others that are fully listed on their website (hulufarm.com).
They also sell chicken and duck eggs year-round, in addition to homemade salted duck eggs commonly used in Chinese rice porridge. However, Zhiwei recalled that in the beginning, sales were slim and they needed to actively find customer networks. They began carting their produce on Saturdays to the Huaxia Chinese School at Montgomery Upper Middle School, which was “like a market where you wait for customers to come,” Zhiwei joked.
Today, the Hulu Farm also uses connections on WeChat, a popular messaging app, to allow customers from across Central Jersey to order their food for weekend deliveries. Because the farm is especially committed to fresh food, delivery weekends are extra busy. After a 6 am start, the vegetables are picked, washed, weighed, and packaged. Then, on the same day, Zhiwei spends multiple hours delivering to towns like Basking Ridge, Warren, Westfield, Livingston, and Millburn, to name a few. “Before farming, I used to just go to work, come home... I had nothing special to do. But right now, my whole weekends are fully occupied,” he said.
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The farm is also proud to sell “only” their own crops. Several years ago, another farmer turned to them for help in selling his vegetables, the farm received a call from a regular customer expressing immediate dissatisfaction with the difference in the new vegetables. Several others soon reported the same observation. “After that, we never sell outsider vegetables,” Zhiwei said, laughing.
For local sales, Montgomery residents can call the farm at 609.937.4345 (English), or 609.865.5630 (Chinese) to place an order. With pandemic restrictions and his parents, who are each over 60 years old, to protect, Zhiwei explained that the farm no longer keeps an open barn but places local customer orders by the front gates for residents to pick up.
Through the years, the Zhu family at Hulu Farm have stayed together. Zhiwei’s children now help out at the farm, but they have also grown beyond blood lines and township boundaries. Growing and selling Asian vegetables in a new country has helped his family find and Hulu (Laozhu) Farm Feeds Community, Literally & Figuratively promote the Chinese community around them.
It has also led them to new connections with neighbors despite language barriers for his parents - after all, food is universal. Reflecting on farming as a practice, Zhiwei said, “If you know how to farm, you will appreciate how much hard work farmers put in, so you should appreciate it and not throw food away. If you know vegetables, how they grow, what nutrients and benefits they bring, it’s beneficial for you. Everybody should learn some farming skills.”