At first glance, Charles Rosen, founder of Jersey Cider Works, appears to be a walking contradiction. A self-proclaimed “socialist, Canadian Jew,” he also preaches a self-styled economic philosophy he calls “libertarian pragmatism.” He’s by turns captivating and abrasive. One moment, he’s touting the virtues of regenerative agriculture, citing poetic imagery about the benevolence of trees; the next, he’s cursing “douchebag Brooklyn hipsters” for buying their microgreens from AeroFarms (the new, much-ballyhooed vertical farm in town). He’s a former lawyer and ad executive living in the tony suburb of Montclair, New Jersey. But his sights are set on the struggling metropolis to the east: Newark.
Newark, of course, is full of contradictions of its own. A historically diverse city with a rich cultural legacy, it boasts one of the country’s busiest airports, an indispensable shipping port, and a prime location: only six miles from New York City. But despite these advantages, nearly a third of the population lives below the poverty line. Home to several major corporate offices and a number of universities, local residents hold only 18 percent of the city’s jobs. In spite of everything, economic inequality has persisted.
Rosen says he hopes to help transform Newark through hard cider—not the product, specifically, but the agricultural, economic, and labor model he’s built around producing it. It’s an ongoing effort that’s both made breakthroughs and hit snags. But to tell the story of Jersey Cider Works, it’s important to point out that Newark was formerly a center of local food production. That’s thanks in part to an unlikely hero, a speckled, golden apple that was once abundant, then nearly extinct, and now—like Newark—may finally be on the mend.
Newark has had a reputation for many things, but it’s been a while since cider making was one of them. And yet, long ago, the kind produced here—made from a prized local specialty, the Harrison apple— was considered the nation’s finest. At the turn of the 19th century, a robust industry sprang up around the Harrison and the celebrated “champagne of Newark” that it yielded, supposedly winning the highly coveted affection of George Washington himself.
But then, the champagne of Newark stopped flowing. Orchards gave way to housing as the city grew, and, according to Edible Jersey’s Fran McManus, as development pushed farms farther east and prohibition-era stigmas remained, cider never recovered. City-brewed beer became the local drink of choice. By the 1970s, the Harrison apple was thought to be extinct—though reports of its death turned out to be slightly exaggerated. In 1976, and again in 1989, orchardists discovered two surviving Harrison trees—one just a week before it was cut down to make room for a vegetable garden and another, still living, on an estate near Paramus. In both cases, spring twigs—known as “scion wood”—were grafted onto healthy trees elsewhere, creating new orchards in Vermont and Virginia from the cuttings.
It was a close call for the Harrison, a brush with oblivion. But for Rosen, the apple’s resurgence has become a guiding metaphor, a call to arms, and a symbol of the city itself.
“I live in a town that has literal billionaires in it,” Rosen says of Montclair, where his neighborhood roster sounds a lot like a red carpet after-party guest list. “I live next to Bobbi Brown, the makeup tycoon; Don Katz, who built Audible; and Stephen Colbert. You have tremendous wealth in communities like mine, that are basically suburbs of Newark.”
Though Rosen says being a member of the ring of wealth surrounding Newark’s “impoverished inner core” bothered him, he wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. Early on, he toyed with the idea of running for public office, but he gave up after learning that most of his time would be spent fundraising, or, as he puts it, “sitting in a call center, dialing for dollars.” But as Rosen searched for a way to meaningfully invest in Newark’s local economy, he stumbled on the folksy and poignant story of the Harrison apple’s near-extinction. And it came at the perfect time.
It was 2012, and Rosen had just founded New Ark Farms as a venture in workforce development and urban renewal, later hiring Aldo Civico, director of the Center for Conflict Resolution at Columbia University, to help develop a prison re-entry curriculum for former inmates.
Rosen was growing more and more interested in using sustainable agriculture as a way to rejuvenate the city. At the same time, cider was becoming a rapidly expanding sector of the alcohol industry. Here was a crop anchored in the city’s heritage. The idea to bring Newark cider back checked all the boxes.
By 2014, Rosen was purchasing American heirloom cider trees from nurseries all over the United States, including a few Harrisons from Virginian orchardist Tom Burford—who had helped graft twigs from the last remaining trees—with the intent of repopulating the region. He launched Jersey Cider Works, the cider production branch of his New Ark Farms (the social enterprise focused on workforce development and regenerative agriculture), and secured small-scale growers to source apples from until his lot was mature enough. The only piece missing was a location in Newark in which to house his production. He entered into negotiations with the city about buying the site of the now-demolished Pabst Blue Ribbon factory.
But his plans were interrupted. Despite a history of cider production in the region, the state did not offer cider licenses, which forced all cideries to operate as wineries. And to be considered a winery in New Jersey, Rosen had to have at least three acres of vineyard space attached to his production facility.
The chances of finding three usable acres of land in a city made of more than 70 percent concrete, with meticulous zoning regulations, incredibly high property values, and environmentally hazardous industrial remains, were understandably slim. Rosen was forced to take his project out of the city.
In the spring of 2014, Rosen, desperate for a venue, finally found an abandoned farm in the small town of Asbury, in Hunterdon County, about 55 miles away from Newark.
Over the last two and a half years, operating out of the remote, rural environment has had its perks. Today, the 108-acre property produces 60,000 gallons of cider per year under the brand name Ironbound (after the historic working-class neighborhood in Newark), with plans to expand into perry (pear cider) production. The farm grows fruits and vegetables, which it sells to local businesses and feeds to its staff, and it also provides a serenity that would have been impossible in the city.
James Williams commutes two hours every day to get to and from the farm in Asbury. Born and raised by his grandmother in Newark, Williams was a child of the streets—though he says he never missed an 8 o’clock curfew because “that’s how street I was.” At 37 years old, the job at New Ark Farms is Williams’ first ‘on the books’, let alone, on a farm. He says the remoteness has been a godsend. “There’s no nature in Newark, just police and violence. That’s why I like the drive at the end of the day. Quiet, peaceful. And I’m away from problems, stress-free when I’m up here.” He’s been with the company for two and a half years.
Stories like Williams’ are encouraging, but they’re far from the norm. There are many heartbreaks in this line of work. Farm life is a dramatic shift for a city-dwelling workforce, especially a formerly incarcerated one, and it’s not for everybody. Rosen recalls one former inmate, whose financial circumstances forced him back to the streets and, eventually, back in prison, despite his progress in the curriculum.
“These people come out of a state of brokenness for years,” he says. “We bring them out of that environment, they have all these restrictions on the jobs they can get, all of their child support kicks back in, all of their court fees and fines and we’re like, ‘Good luck!’ Many of them are simply forced back into dealing.”
What started as a project to create jobs and strengthen local food production for the city of Newark currently employs only two Newark residents, Williams being one of them. For a number of reasons, importing a steady workforce into Hunterdon County’s serene countryside has been a constant battle.
Bridging the divide between where food is grown (agrarian communities) and where it is consumed (urban centers) is an extremely complicated issue for American cities. And Newark is no exception. Under former mayor—now Senator—Cory Booker’s administration, a push toward healthy food access gained some momentum. In 2008, the city held what it called a “Green Future Summit,” a citywide brainstorming session during which issues tied to sustainability were discussed in depth. Soon after, an Office of Sustainability was formed and in 2013, it released an Action Plan that devoted an entire chapter to food.
Some goals didn’t materialize, like the long-awaited formation of a Food Policy Council. But others were successful—setting up a raft of new farmers’ markets in the city, for instance, and promoting the massively underutilized Adopt-A-Lot program, where residents can lease a vacant lot owned by the municipality for just a dollar.
Today, there are between 60 and 70 functioning urban gardens in the city.
But while community gardening has done a lot to educate and beautify the city, many gardens cannot operate in a commercial capacity or create jobs the way larger for-profit enterprises like Rosen’s can. Gardens are usually maintained or funded by nonprofit entities, which themselves are strapped and often under existential threat as they continually strive to raise enough funds for their own viability.
Stephanie Greenwood, who ran the Office of Sustainability under the Booker administration, says there’s still change needed at the state level in order for Newark to strengthen its food economy. Making local growers eligible to accept food stamps is just one example. “A lot of the people in Newark shopping for produce are eligible for SNAP and WIC. It’s a big market, actually, and if you have the ability to accept these two programs as money, you could make a decent amount of money selling produce in Newark. But the local growers [urban gardeners] here can’t access it because of a state policy that says you have to be a five-acre farm or more in order to accept it.”
“It’s kind of ridiculous, these antiquated rules,” says Nathaly Agosto Filion, the Sustainability Office’s current director. She recalls a recent conversation with someone who had hoped to start a vermicomposting company in the city but encountered difficulty because of laws saying worms should be treated like livestock. “People don’t realize they’re there until you have this interesting idea… and you’re faced with a wall of bureaucracy.”
But while some urban food ventures are obstructed in Newark, others thrive.
Around the same time Rosen was toiling to open Jersey Cider Works in Newark, the aforementioned AeroFarms, currently the world’s largest vertical farm, opened its headquarters downtown. It has been welcomed into the city with open arms. In January, the New Yorker’s Ian Frazier penned a lengthy feature on AeroFarms’ high-tech, hydroponic model—now a nearly $100 million venture, at least some portion of which is funded by public grants and tax credits.
Rosen says he’s invested millions of dollars of his own money into funding New Ark Farms and jokes that he “can’t even get the state to fund a deer fence.”
Fortunately, the regulation tide for cider makers in Newark appears to be turning. Last May, Governor Chris Christie signed a bill on behalf of two New Jersey cideries, one of which was Jersey Cider Works, enabling future cideries to produce up to 1.5 million gallons within city bounds.
Thanks to that new legislation, Rosen has a two-year plan for expansion, which includes migrating cider production and agricultural activity back into the city. But despite this news, a tension lingers that is far from reconciled. For all of Newark’s modern success stories—community gardens, AeroFarms, and Jersey Cider Works—how many other other entrepreneurs have tried and failed to implement their vision of a more sustainable food economy? And how do we fix the system that prevented them from doing so?
“I went to Newark to prove a model—that a for-profit business could treat people with dignity, help repair the damage of the earth, and still make money whilst doing so,” Rosen said early on in one conversation. To the question, “Why Newark?” he responded warily, “I kind of feel like if we can’t crack Newark… well, we’re in big trouble as a country.”