How We Got Here

How our interest in sustainable energy turned into a vineyard. This vineyard was supposed to be a restored watermill.

Google Maps Finds The Perfect Roof

For solar panels to generate the most power possible they need to face the sun, which means they need to face south.  They also can’t be in the shade which is why we couldn’t put solar panels on our house in Haddonfield:  too many tall, old, but very beautiful, trees.  Even though Camden apartments weren’t an option,  Jed realized that there were hundreds of roofs on commercial buildings and warehouses that faced south and that would be perfect for solar panels. But solar panels are still relatively expensive, so it was not surprising that few building owners hade enough spare cash available to invest in solar even if it was a good return on the investment.    But by now, Jed had sold the avocado orchard in California and was itching to put the money to work.

So off we go for the next month searching for the perfect south-facing roof.  Up and down the White Horse Pike.  Up and down the Black Horse Pike.  Eventually we find ourselves out in the country, looking at big roofs on barns instead of warehouses. It begins to dawn on us that maybe a barn is just the ticket for this solar panel project.  When we had been prowling about looking for watermills we had passed dozens of lovely country properties, many with beautiful old barns.  Did we want to live in the country?  We liked Haddonfield, why would we move?  But we were intrigued by the possibility.

Hours and Hours of Google Maps

The cool thing about Google Maps in 2009 was that they had a link to properties for sale (it’s gone now).  So you could pull up an area and see all of the realtor listings.  Then you could pull up a property and take a look at it from an aerial view, and from the street view.   I lost track of the number of hours Jed spent on line looking for barns for sale; suffice it to say that he looked at hundreds of listings.  One was for 80 acres of preserved farmland about an hour away that was being auctioned by the state.  We drove out one weekend to look at it.  It was beautiful land with big old trees near an old farmhouse and suddenly we were serious about thinking we might live in the country.  But 80 acres?  Wake up!  Wake up!  On the drive home we concluded that we had to set some criteria for our search if we were really going to buy a place where we might live.  Yes, it should have a barn that faced south, but it couldn’t be more than an hour commute from the IVA office since it was unlikely that we’d be retiring any time soon.

One Sunday morning

It wasn’t coffee and the newspaper on Sunday mornings for Jed.  It was coffee and property listings.  One Sunday in late spring he said ‘Hey, come take a look at this one.  It may be worth a drive to the country.”  The listing showed a big field, with a big red barn at the back, and the remnants of a house.  It was near Mullica Hill, half an hour from our office.  The coffee went into go-cups and we were on our way.  When we arrived there was no ‘For Sale’ sign, but the address was right, and we could see the barn and the stone chimney from the house.  So we decided to venture down the gravel road.  While Jed looked at the barn, I wandered over to see what was left of the house.  There was a pretty little meadow at the back with two deer grazing down by a winding creek.  They looked up startled to see visitors and bounded quickly into the woods. After about ten minutes we were both saying to each other ‘This is it!”  We got back home and immediately called the realtor’s number to say we were interested.   It wasn’t long before we got a call back from the realtor who informed us that unfortunately the property had already sold.  “But I’m sure I can find another one just like it for you,” he assured us, and so it wasn’t long before we were back on the road and on our way to meet Warren.

Warren and his Black SUV with the bright yellow Weichert logo are a pretty common sight around Gloucester County.  Warren is only a part-time realtor, (he’s also a part-time hair stylist), but he’s one of those guys who seems to know everyone – and their houses.  We looked at dozens of listings over the next couple of months, but we didn’t find another one with a big barn, and a pretty little meadow, and a winding creek.  We were out one weekend tromping around a muddy field and about to call it quits when Warren let slip that he was pretty sure that the sale on what we now regarded as ‘our’ property would never go through.  He didn’t say why, but he said he’d let us know if it were to come back on the market.  With that, we called it quits and went on vacation.  Yep, the deal fell through and we had a chance to get the one we wanted all along.

I’m not mowing all that grass or….. we could grow grapes!

We began to check out the Mullica Hill property in earnest.  The pole barn was in reasonably good shape, not pretty, dirt floor, full of big bulldozers, but functional.  Most importantly it looked sturdy enough to support a bunch of solar panels. There was what looked to be a new foundation by the house, and the listing said there was a brand new septic system.  There was a big field of almost five acres between the house and the road that looked green, but we had no idea what was growing there.  After looking at a 100 ‘farmettes’ sporting giant lawns, I knew I had no interest spending every weekend on a riding mower.  Jed’s five acres of avocados in Ojai got us to thinking about an orchard, and we knew that New Jersey was a pretty big peach producing state. We began to investigate peaches, and learned that local farmers were pulling the peaches out in order to put in grapevines.  There was more money in wine, and grapes had been grown in the state up until Prohibition.  That there was even a town called Vineland seemed like a good omen.  The more we thought about it, (Well actually the more I thought about it, since Jed had declared that the barn was his project and I could do what I wanted in the field.) the more wine grapes seemed to make sense.  We like wine.  I like to garden.  So what if we’d never made wine or grown grapes before.  We could learn.

So we had some soil tests run, and while the PH was out of whack in two directions, there was nothing lethal in the soil and it seemed to drain ok.  We could fix the PH, buy some grape vines and we’d be in business.  So we made an offer, and after a little back and forth, we had an agreement and a September closing date.

You are an ignorant person!

We were up bright and early the morning of the closing, and stopped by the property one last time to look around.  It was a beautiful summer day with a cloudless sky, and temperatures climbing into the ’80’s.  We had brought our friend Paul, who is a lawyer, as a precaution.  During the course of the summer we had learned that the ‘new’ septic system had never been permitted, that the previous owner had been fined by the EPA for bulldozing down trees around the creek, and that the sellers were in the middle of a divorce.  So we prepared for the unknown.

Things got off to a rocky start, and quickly ground to a halt when it became apparent that

1.  The wife, who was also a Weichert agent, was trying to engineer the sale as private and not through the agency so that she wouldn’t have to pay any fees.

2.  The husband’s divorce lawyer had a lien against the property for his fees.

3.  The wife was supposed to get the property in the divorce, but the title hadn’t been transferred, and now the husband was refusing to transfer the title unless the lien was taken out of the sale proceeds.

They stepped outside to resolve the problems. There was much yelling and shedding of tears in the hallway, so the agency manager stepped in to mediate.  No luck. After an hour of sitting, Paul, Jed, and I announced that we were heading across the street for breakfast and we’d be back in an hour.  We returned, hopeful that things had been worked out and we could proceed.  Wrong.   The wife tells Warren that if he gave up his commission there would be money to cover the lien.  Jed goes nuts and  says that if Warren loses his commission we would withdraw our offer. All hell breaks loose.  Jed is accused of being ‘a very ignorant person’ by the very distraught wife, but eventually we make it to the end, title and key to the barn in hand.

WHEW!  Pam and Jed’s Amazing Ten Acre Adventure is About To Begin!

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How About A Roof in Camden?

It wasn’t long before Jed had that look in his eye again. “Want to come with me to look at some buildings in Camden?”   ‘Okaaaay’.  Five minutes later we were in our little Prius heading down Haddon Avenue into Camden, N.J. It wasn’t long before we were driving around looking for houses and apartment buildings that Jed had found listed for sale online.

“My idea is that we fix up some houses, put solar panels on the roofs, rent out the apartments, and make money from rent and SRECs.  We could be part of Camden finally turning the corner”.

Now it’s true that there had been talk in the local newspapers about yet another redevelopment plan for Camden, but as we drove around looking at one derelict building after another I wasn’t too sure about the probability of that happening.  There are still pockets of prosperity in downtown Camden anchored by the Federal courthouse, a prison, Campbell’s Soup’s corporate offices, and Cooper Hospital.  But most of middle class Camden moved out years ago. There have been numerous government efforts to revitalize the city, including a new aquarium, a new concert venue, the USS battleship New Jersey anchored for tours.  Campbells built a beautiful new ballpark for AAA baseball teams, and Rutgers University has spruced up its campus, but despite all the new attractions poverty has remained pernicious.

But Jed’s entrepreneurial streak was in full swing, and so we continued to cruise slowly down one block and up the next.  It’s late summer, around dinner time, and people are outside, walking home from work, sitting on stoops to escape the heat, chatting on street corners. I was driving and Jed was navigating, looking for addresses where few properties had numbers visible.  By the fourth time we circled one particular block people began to look at us suspiciously and I refused to continue.  The drive home was quiet and uncomfortable. Jed could not understand why I was so uncomfortable and I could not understand why he didn’t see that all conversation stopped as we drove slowly by – clearly not from the neighborhood.  Finally I ventured that I would be totally supportive of buying property in Camden but that I just didn’t think I would be very hands on.  Jed responded that he was interested in a project we could do together, and that we should just keep looking.  So we did.

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In Search of the Perfect Watermill

It was a lovely spring morning in April of 2008 that Jed, daughter Becca, and I jumped in the car for a drive to Maryland to investigate a watermill that was for sale.  After poking around back roads for a while without seeing much Jed declared that it was ‘this way’ and soon we arrived at a sign that pointed toward the mill, once owned by Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  The building was three stories high, made from lovely old handmade bricks, and in a very advanced state of disrepair.  The current owner was using the several acres on which the mill stood to house his collection of old trucks.  For a while there we were all getting pretty excited about the idea of restoring the mill.  I was already envisioning a trendy little boutique selling artisan stationery with the beautiful water wheel as back drop to the cash register.  There was just one problem: the little creek that fed the mill had moved over the years and no longer flowed under the water wheel.  In fact it had moved just far enough away that a major earth moving project would be necessary to move it back.  Reluctantly, we all got back in the car.

But now we were all smitten with the idea of owning a water mill – or at least Jed and I were. Becca thought the old trucks were pretty cool but didn’t think she’d want to live there.  Every weekend for the next six months was spent looking at, or sometimes unsuccessfully for, water mills.  Who knew that New Jersey had at least 89 mills still standing?  Jed found a wonderful website called run by a guy named Jim Miller (I didn’t make this up.) that’s a hub for mill enthusiasts who contribute photos and commentaries about old mills.  You can find photos of grist mills, saw mills, felt mills, clover mills, woolen mills, plaster mills, cider presses, and distilleries all arranged by state and county, and with mostly helpful driving directions.  We chased a hefty percent of them down and it wasn’t long before we had found one we fell in love with.  It’s known as the Huntsburg Grist Mill, set on a 25 foot waterfall on Bear Creek in Sussex County.  It is a four story beauty from 1844, made of lovely cream colored limestone, in good shape though no longer used as a mill, and it had a small miller’s house just up the road.  We hired a local realtor who tracked down the owner, who turned out to be a man 90 years old, retired, and living up in Vermont.  We waited impatiently to hear if he would be interested in selling.  After the real estate agent failed to get a response, Jed called the old man up himself only to receive a terse ‘No!” and that was the end of that.

There was a brief fling with a three-story wooden structure in the center of a small town in central Jersey.  The town owned it and was trying to get someone to turn it into apartments.  At first it looked like a real possibility since it sat directly alongside a substantial river, and the water wheel had been carefully stored in the basement.  A second trip revealed that somewhere over the years the town had blocked up the sluice that diverted the river water under the water wheel, and a look inside the building revealed half an inch of graphite dust from years of making pencils. No wonder the town had offered the mill for $1!  Finally we concluded that all the mills in NJ were either already restored, or too far gone – except for one lovely exception that an old man living in Vermont couldn’t part with.  We couldn’t blame him.

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Pam and Jed’s Excellent Ten Acre Adventure

After many years of city/suburban living in LA, Chicago, Minneapolis, NYC, and then in Haddonfield, N.J.,  a small historic town near,  Philadelphia, Jed and I are the proud owners of ten acres out in the countryside in south Jersey. The land is beautiful with a lovely lane of sycamore trees along a long gravel driveway that leads to a large red pole barn at the rear.  There is a big meadow at the back that drops down to a small (yes babbling) brook that harbors just enough trees to still be called a woods.  Turkeys and deer have pretty much claimed the property as squatters, except ironically for what’s left of a house that was torn down several years ago.  All that remains is part of a garage, a rec room with a fireplace, and a cement foundation that is very large and very empty. The front of the property is a side open, sunny space that we think would be perfect for a vineyard.

Now Jed had spent some time “living off the land’ with a group of friends in upstate New York during the sixties, and he had also owned an avocado orchard in Ojai, California for many years.  While I had spent numerous summers on the farm where my mother grew up, my farming experience was limited to a back yard vegetable garden that was tended mostly on weekends.  So making a move out to the country fell in the category of ‘Pam and Jed’s Ten-Acre Adventure – which we hope will also be Excellent.

Let me tell you how we got here. Jed had gotten it into his head that he wanted to restore a water mill. That idea had come about because he had put solar panels on the roof at our office.  Not long after going live with the solar panels he was gleefully monitoring the meter that tracked how much electricity the panels generated. The idea that he might actually have PSE&G paying him instead of the other way around had him totally enamored.   Then he sold his first SREC (Solar Renewable Energy Credit) – via an online auction. New Jersey has a pretty ambitious alternative energy plan which requires the utilities to hit yearly benchmarks which they mostly meet by purchasing credits from other people’s renewable energy initiatives. Pretty soon he had a spreadsheet going to figure out if there was money to be made in this.

Now many might find beauty in the clean energy of a solar panel, but few would find them beautiful to look at. We’re lucky that the office panels are on the roof of a three story house, so we don’t see them.  It wasn’t long before Jed asked if I wanted to go look at a water mill he was thinking of buying.

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