Nearly five decades after opening in Burlington County's heartland, the sprawling Conte Farms and its iconic farmer's market have closed.
A popular stop on the way to the Jersey Shore, Conte's also was among the first pick-your-own farms in the region, opening many of its 250 acres to families who would board tractor-pulled wagons to the orchards to pluck juicy apples from trees and then head into fields to gather strawberries and string beans to fill baskets.
"We have a prospective buyer," said Larry Conte, sitting atop a tractor on a windy day last week as he drove through the property and prepared for a March 28 auction of the farm equipment. "And the new owners will probably do the same stuff that we did," he said referring to his family's pick-your-own business.
That's welcome news, as supporters who posted numerous comments on Conte's Facebook page lamented the shuttering of the Tabernacle Township institution.
The interested party, Conte said, is the adjacent Russo's Farm, whose owners have said they would like to grow many of the same crops. He said the Russo family has been their neighbors for many years and would like to expand. The Russo family, through a friend working at their market, declined to comment.
A grain farmer has also inquired about purchasing the property, Conte said.
Conte said that he and his brother, Joseph, decided to sell the farm not long after their father, Joseph G. Conte Jr., died in October. The farm market was shuttered after his death, ending the season a few weeks early.
In 1967, Conte Jr. had purchased the land off Flyatt and Carranza Roads and planted tomatoes and potatoes. His father, an Italian immigrant, had also owned a farm nearby.
Conte Jr. was one of the original growers for Campbell's Soup and won awards for his high-quality tomatoes, according to his obituary. He was 85 and is survived by Joyce, his wife of 56 years, and his two sons.
Fifteen years ago, Conte Jr. agreed to restrict the deed to 243 acres of his land to keep it from being developed, according to Paul Leakan, a spokesman for the New Jersey Pinelands Commission. The commission, which oversees development in the environmentally sensitive federal Pinelands preserve in South Jersey, gives farmers the opportunity to give up development rights in exchange for "credits" that can be redeemed by developers who want to build in a designated growth area of the preserve.
The Lenape Regional School District purchased the credits in 2000, paying Conte $252,500 so that it could build Seneca High School on a former sod farm a mile away, Leakan said. Conte's land will remain open space, or be kept as farmland or recreational fields, in perpetuity, under the arrangement, Leakan said.
Larry Conte said the farming equipment would be sold first, followed by the land. A Pirrung Auctioneers van was parked at the farm last week as wooden crates were being stacked high and vehicles were assembled.
The tiny bakery next to the skeleton of the farmer's market was missing its normal crush of customers. Its home-baked apple cider doughnuts and pies were another part of the farm's allure. Halloween tractor rides and a corn maze were other attractions.
Paul von Zech, a longtime customer, said he was sad to learn Conte's Farm had closed. Every weekend for the last 20 summers he would stop there to pick up corn on the cob and tomatoes to take to the family's Shore house at Long Beach Island.
"They always had the best, freshest stuff," von Zech, 55, of Marlton, said. "The peaches were sold in 10-pound boxes and I would freeze them for the winter and bake them in pies and muffins."
Von Zech described Conte's as "an old-fashioned farmer's market" where you would see workers carrying produce in from the fields behind the building. "They had bins and bins of stuff, jalapeño peppers, and all kinds of vegetables," he said.
Township Committeeman Stephen Lee IV, another farmer, said Conte's Farm "set the table for other Pick-Your-Owns in the area. . . . It was very successful, whether it was pumpkins or blueberries or strawberries or raspberries." He also said he was pleased the family had taken steps "to keep the farm in agriculture - a noble thing."
Jack McGinnis, a third-generation owner of the nearby Nixon's General Store, also has fond memories of Conte's. "Conte's has been there as long as I can remember," he said.
When he was a youngster, McGinnis said, his grandmother would send him there to buy strawberries for her shortcake. He would ride his bike.
McGinnis said Conte's helped bring in customers for other businesses in the close-knit community.
"They were such an attraction," he said. "It's saddening and a little scary when you see somebody like that close down. They're honest, hardworking people. "I'm really going to miss them."