Stephen Cohen, 76, is living a comfortable retirement in Jackson Township, following a successful career as a mortgage banker employing more than 100 people in central New Jersey and numerous other location throughout 16 states.
His early life, however, was everything but comfortable, he said in a phone interview. As the son of an egg farmer in Farmingdale, one of scores of Monmouth County Jews who plied that trade, he recalls long, arduous, mostly unprofitable years when chore followed chore with barely any letup.
On June 17, Cohen and two other former egg farmers, Benjamin Ross, 95, and Everett Rogove, 91, will tell their stories at the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County in Freehold Township. The event is an outgrowth of the museum’s continuing exhibit “The Land Was Theirs: The Story of the Jewish Farmers in New Jersey.”
“I lived on the farm between the ages of 11 and 22, and it was a harsh existence, especially for a city kid,” said Cohen. “My dad had owned a liquor store in Hoboken, but in 1948 he became worried about competition because liquor licenses were easier to get following the war. My uncle lived in Monmouth County and talked him into coming down so he could live the life of a ‘gentleman farmer.’”
Cohen said his dad, Julius, made mistakes, first in opting for an 11-acre lot in an out-of-the-way location on Colts Neck Road instead of a parcel on Route 33, which would eventually have commercial value, and second, in overpaying. “He paid $50,000, an absolute fortune in those days,” Cohen lamented.
By the time his father became a farmer, prices were already dropping from their post-war high of 90 cents a dozen at wholesale, Cohen said. “By 1962, they were down to 25 cents, and in 1966, when my mother sold the place — after my father died of his third heart attack — she was only able to get $25,000, half what they had originally paid 18 years earlier.
“Seven days a week, every week, I was up early to feed the chickens. That meant hauling 100-lb. sacks of Purina to the feeding troughs,” said Cohen. “Later, I would go from nest to nest collecting the eggs. We had 500 chickens in each room, 5,000 chickens in all, so that took a long time,” he said. “Then, in our 1938 pickup truck, I would drive the eggs over to the grading room. I was only 13, but I was allowed to drive on family-owned property.”
The grading room was another ordeal. “We stood for five to six hours grading each egg by hand,” Cohen said.
When all the morning chores were done, they began again, as there were two laying cycles per day.
On school days, he would get a little respite, but on weekends he was responsible for an egg route where he sold eggs, dairy and “fresh-killed” chickens to consumers, going door-to-door, usually in Hoboken, but sometimes in Marlboro, Manalapan, and Old Bridge.
Cohen said he also had to become adept at using firearms and traps to stop wild animals from killing the chickens. “I had a .22 and a .45, and I shot rats, foxes, and one time, a bobcat. I also caught three owls and lots of muskrats. Once, a skunk squirted me in the face. My eyeglasses saved my sight, but I had to burn all my clothes, and the stink lingered for almost a month.”
If there was any time off and he wanted to get together other Jewish teens, he had to drive miles. Nothing came easily.
“Anyone who says it was a good life is lying,” Cohen said. “And that’s evident in the fact that almost all the Jewish kids left the farms as soon as they could, acquired college degrees and pursued different careers — medicine, law, anything but farming.”
The hardest part
Fellow panelist Rogove said that he liked farming well enough to earn a four-year degree in husbandry at Rutgers. “I was involved in the scientific end of farming. I maintained my relationship with Rutgers, and that meant I kept learning. So agriculture was exciting for me.”
But Rogove also remembered the drudgery, the aching muscles, and the loss of sleep. “Our family had two farms, the first in Howell, and later we moved to a farm in Jackson.
“The hardest part was cleaning up the manure,” he said.
Born in 1919, Ben Ross, the oldest panelist, had an opportunity to leave farm life at the end of World War II, but chose not to.
Before he was drafted in 1940, Ross worked with his father-in-law Max Rosenkranz. Upon his return, he said, “I bought my own farm near Lakewood, where I had over 2,000 White Leghorn chickens. In the 1960s, when the market dried up, I went to work in the hardware business.”
Similarly, when their farm finally shut down, Rogove and his brother Robert had to find other livelihoods. Robert, Rogove said, “went into home construction, building on 70 of the 100 acres we once had farmed. I took over some coin-operated laundries we were running as a sideline, and I nurtured it into a business that had about 1,000 washing machines in over 100 locations — mainly in multi-housing developments.”