At Campbell, we believe that real food has roots. For 150 years, we’ve built strong connections with local farmers. Today, we’re proud to introduce you to John Coombs, owner of Coombs Sod Farms in Elmer, New Jersey, a nine-generation family farm.
When William Alderman Coombs established Pineview Farms 250 years ago in the heart of the future “Garden State,” it was a 167-acre vegetable and dairy operation.
Today, John Coombs is the eighth generation to farm this land, now known as Coombs Sod Farms. Its 1,500 acres yield potatoes and sod, as well as rotational crops of corn and soybeans. His wife, Donna, does the bookkeeping. Their son John, Jr., is general manager, and their son Kevin manages the sod operations.
“As he got older, my father, George, would say he enjoyed being on the farm because he could watch his kids and grandkids,” John says. “Now that I have six grandchildren, I see what he was talking about!”
From Seed Potatoes to Soup Potatoes – and Potato Chips
Located just 30 miles from Camden, John’s father began selling potatoes and tomatoes to Campbell in the 1940s.
“In the 1970s, we grew 300 acres of potatoes, and Campbell was our biggest buyer,” John notes. “Now, we grow 400 acres and Campbell probably uses one-third of our potatoes for soups and chips.”
Potato season starts April 1, when Coombs spends 10 to 21 days planting seed potatoes from Maine, Wisconsin, Michigan, and New York. Atlantic and Snowden chipping varieties are harvested from mid-July through August. Table varieties — Superiors, Rebas, Dark Red Norlands, and Norkota Russets – are harvested from July through October.
A Destiny Based on Density
“Chip manufacturers prefer a high-gravity, denser potato such as Atlantic,” John says.
But for a hearty soup, a chipping potato isn’t going to cut it.
“A boiled chipping potato turns to mush,” John explains. “A lower-density soup potato won’t fall apart when it’s cooked.”
‘Leave the Land Better than You Found It’
John and his family are also committed to being good stewards of their farmland.
“Producing food, the land is important to us,” John says. “My father always told me, ‘You leave the land better than you found it. Take care of the land, and the land will take care of you.’ When he died in 1992, we knew we had to take care of three things: the land, the equipment, and the employees. When we do that, we’re sustainable.”
That culture of sustainability is part of the reason “Sod” is now in the farm’s name.
“We always grew grain as a rotational crop, but when grain prices were depressed in 2000, we decided to grow sod as a new rotational crop.” John recalls. “The sod recovers fertilizer left behind from the potatoes, and the potatoes benefit from the organic matter provided from the sod.” For a long time, Coombs farm has also utilized cover crops, such as rye and radish, to further enhance soil health.
Reaping the Harvest
John has chaired the land use board, been president of the local Ruritan civic organization and the state Cultivated Sod Association, been a member of the board of directors of Turfgrass Producers International and Harvest Community Bank, and even served as mayor of Upper Pittsgrove Township in the 1990s. But his heart remains on the farm.
“There are so many challenges – it’s a life you have to really want,” he says. “But it’s a great life. When you plant something and harvest it and know it’s feeding people, it’s rewarding.”