Read Brian Bennett's Farmer of the Year speech
Brian and Ann Bennett at the farm in 2004. (Photo by David Sommerstein)
There was a lot of pride and excitement in the North Country agricultural community when "one of our own" was named Farmer of the Year by the Northeast Organic Farmers Association – New York chapter. Brian Bennett and his wife, Ann, have been farming on Bittersweet Farms in Heuvelton for almost 15 years. They've become go-to farmer-educators for many people in the region, including deep ties with St. Lawrence University.
Brian accepted his award last month in Saratoga Springs and gave the keynote speech. Here it is in its entirety, provided by Bittersweet Farms. Enjoy the great read!
We are more than just a producer of food. We are Bittersweet Farm, a small – scale diversified organic agricultural enterprise wholly committed to sharing. I personally aspire to someday knowing enough to be a farma, in the meantime I have settled on being a small –scale local, diversified organic agricultural entrepreneur. We share. Sharing is Caring. We belong to a nutritionally rich education sharing community. Community starts with community organizers. You my friends/comrades will be richly rewarded as organizers within the organic community. Affluent, privatized societies are not sustainable, and are not challenged to contribute to community.
In 1896 William Jennings Bryan said
“Burn down your cities but leave our farms and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”
Has anyone seen Detroit Michigan lately? Under the current economic system Detroit may indeed be bankrupt, but it, like many cities, towns, and villages here in New York, Vermont, and all of New England, is on the very edge of the future. It is being rebuilt from the soil up into small – scale, local, diversified, organic communities. Groups like Farm Fresh Rhode Island, North Country Grown Cooperative, and Finger Lakes Organics are making it happen. In Flushing Queens, the John Browne High School contains the only department of agriculture in the New York City School System and Steve Perry, the assistant principal of agriculture, is looking for farms where their students can get hands on experience. This IS the future of agriculture.
Food is, for lack of a better word, IMPORTANT. And small scale, local organic agricultural entrepreneurs are very important people. Very Important People. I declare all of us VIPs.
As such we must share all of our mistakes, missteps, failures, pain, suffering, knowledge, successes and, our seeds.
We must preserve the knowledge of the past and plant the seeds of our future. The following is a quote that I think speaks to sustainability. Though it seems counterintuitive, it is a truism.
“All we really have is that which we give away.”
My friend Dan Kehleher, (who for 35 years has been breeding and saving corn seed that I call Kehleher corn), had been in the habit of sharing much of his seeds with others. At one point in his life, fire destroyed his seed shed and all his saved seed within it. Shortly after the fire, friends returned seed they had received from Dan and had propagated. He now had only the seed which he himself had given away.
Hi, my name is Brian Bennett and amazingly I was selected as the 2014 NOFA-NY Farmer of the Year. How that happened I do not understand.
If you actually saw my farm, it is likely you would not understand it either. So why am I here? I am here to share. To share my story with you.
I was born on a dark and stormy night in 1958 – ok I don’t have time to relive over 50 years here so, briefly, my mother, thanks Mom, was raised on a farm in Indiana. She always told horror stories about picking lima beans, peas, weeding, being chased by turkeys, dogs, pigs – having to pick up pigs by their ears. She hated the dirt and said that one day one of her kids would grow up to become a farmer just to spite her. So at age 11 I volunteered, and someday I may grow up, but today I have been officially selected as a faamaa.
At age 11 I began to make my farm plan. With help from the Encyclopedia Britannica and Rodale’s Organic Gardening and Farming magazines I wrote; “ I will own a 130 acre farm and have a Ford 601 Workmaster, Horned Dorset sheep, White geese, Shetland sheep dogs, Suffolk Punch horses, and Jersey cows. “ With many false starts I moved toward a future of food production. I had a garden, then an organic garden. I worked on large corn/soy farms in Indiana; I received a 2 year degree in bookkeeping. I attended a Real Ag school for one year where I quickly realized I did not want to be a Real Agricultural Engineer. So as we all know, in order to be a small – scale diversified agricultural entrepreneur we must first get a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from a prestigious Art College. After my wife and I received our BFAs we were prepared to get our Masters of Fine Arts, or buy a farm. We realized that an MFA was probably a lot easier, but I was quite depressed by the idea, and it was way more expensive than buying a farm. So while my sister Sandy handled less than easy questions as to why I turned down a scholarship to the Maryland Institute of Art, my wife Ann and I pursued my dream of farming. We bought a small farm in West Baldwin, Maine, where we were quickly given horned dorset sheep by Dr. Hussey our veterinarian. A Ford 601 Workmaster came our way when somehow, as if by magic, my employer had the opportunity to buy a nice barely used John Deere tractor, but there was an old tractor stuck in front of it. He told me if I could remove the old junk tractor I could have it. Well this old tractor turned out to simply be a dust covered Workmaster that started right up. I took it home and we immediately used it to fit our 1 tillable acre. White Geese and a job milking Jersey cows came along. While we both worked full time city jobs off farm, as well as part time jobs, with the help of MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers Growers Association) we began to pour every penny we could into building my dream while my wife mostly cried. After 15 years of no central heat, frozen water, rocky ground, we got central heat, a master bedroom with a beautiful bathroom and a big barn. So I used the master bath once, never slept in the master bedroom and had one winter with central heat.
Then, American Broadcast Corporation came and bought land adjacent to ours. We fought construction of the worlds’ tallest television transmission tower on land directly between our small farm and Briarcliff Farm where I milked Jersey cows. The tower was only 1000 feet from our farm and started at 1million 365 thousand watts of electromagnetic radiation that was supposed to be safe and allow us to watch reruns of Gilligan’s Island. We moved.
The owner of Briarcliff Farms had been giving us back copies of a magazine called “Farming”. It was printed in St. Lawrence County and in the back there were ads from many realtors, such as 200 acre-farm, cows and equipment included – turnkey operation – $50,000 etc. Well Henri Black told me the only place we would be able to farm was St. Lawrence County. So, unable to resist the allure of the sub tropical farming conditions of St. Lawrence County, we headed west.
We moved to our present home at the peak of January weather, with no bathroom, no plumbing, and no viable heating system – nothing but a dump of a house on beautiful land in Heuvelton, NY where my amazing, patient wife began to cry all over again.
The move was bittersweet.
That’s the past. In order to arrive in the future we must plant the seeds now. So presently Bittersweet Farm engages young people in the vagaries of food production. Some of the people we work with come from Saint Lawrence University, Clarkson University, State University of New York Potsdam, SUNY Canton, the Youth Advocacy Program, Worldwide Workers on Organic Farms, interns, the DayCare Center, BOCES, Community Supported Agriculture members, neighbors and family. We believe that the education we provide, reinforces the concept of caring through sharing, seeding the future in a way that helps others to gain some freedom through knowledge and experience. Community Based Learning has provided us with Food For Thought, Making a Difference, American Soils, and Having an Impact. We thoroughly detail to young people, the requirements of surviving in an amazing array of weather conditions. Doing chores at 4AM often times requires 3 pairs of socks, long johns, 2 pairs of pants, 3 shirts, sweat shirt and sweater, wool cap and gloves, but then again by 11am the students may find themselves working in the High Tunnel at 90 degrees and bright sun with high humidity. Still the students arrive in shorts and sneakers in February, to do woods work at 10 degrees, and with 6” of snow on the ground.
We look to the agricultural traditions of the past to build a diverse and sustainable future. One in which the community is left to the next generation better than we found it.
So let me tell you some stories, keeping in mind Wendell Berry, with whom I identify.
“I am a man crude as any, gross of speech, intolerant, stubborn, angry, full of fits and furies. That I may have spoken well at times is not natural. A wonder is what it is.”
I changed some of the names to protect myself and the innocent.
Mike, Ben, Corey, and RJ had been coming to the farm for a couple of years. After having read the Foxfire books, The Whole Earth Catalogs and my copy of the Little House on the Prairie series they decided to build a real log cabin. Their parents paid for an antique crosscut saw and double bit axes.
With the help of my oxen Beave and Judd they built a beautiful 6 foot X 10 foot X 5 foot high log cabin with cracks in the walls that are wide enough for the owls to roost comfortably. It was a learning experience that now works as a pen for our boar. They call it the Hog Log House. With this wealth of experience they set out to build a 36 foot X 40 foot student center. As you will see pictures of this 12 foot X 26 foot rustic log cabin, they made amazing strides in a short time period, but fell short of their goal. Do not let perfection be the enemy of the good enough, and when building a log cabin always remember A2 + B2 = C2 as well as Archimedes and his fulcrum.
This rustic log cabin with a wood cook stove, heat, and solar power has opened up a whole new world called Friends of Bittersweet Farm. It has been used by the Locavore class, Girl Scouts, Board of Cooperative Education Services, interns, WWOOFERs, students, hunters, Sister Bethany and her retreats. It has made it possible for Lisa, John, Kelly, Betsy and others to have their own space for the few hours per night they are not required to work.
Let me tell you about Rolando. Born and raised in New York City he is/was a self proclaimed germophobe. He would come into the house wash his hands then wash the doorknob off to go back outside then promptly turn around, go back into the house and wash his hands again.
We started him out slowly digging carrots but he was totally freaked out by the fact that there was dirt on the carrots – this was going to be tough. After many class hours he decided to introduce us to his girlfriend Skye. She was totally the opposite – a Vermont country girl. While I do not know the exact details as to how it happened – I came outside to see Rolando in the pigpen completely covered in more than just mud. I was afraid that there may be a real crisis, instead he was laughing and thoroughly relaxed and enjoying himself and his girlfriend. After that day he came out regularly until graduation. After graduation Rolando tried working in finance in the city, then called us to tell us he joined the Marines and found that his experience on the farm made his boot camp experience very easy, pleasant and clean by comparison. Since that time many young farmers have considered a week at Bittersweet Farm like Marine Boot Camp.
Madeline arrived in an expensive looking red sports car. She was dressed in her farm clothes, you know, $500 leather jacket, the best LL Bean pants, and high healed boots, ready to engage in a full immersion experience. She explained that her family owned a farm in California and a house in Connecticut. The farm in California was a small vineyard, one that gave her the experience of looking out the window and watching the 100s of migrant farm workers pick grapes. So, well experienced in all that farming offers, and dressed in her high heeled, suede work boots we immediately introduced her to a 300 pound sow that was giving birth in less than ideal conditions. It was cold, wet and stinking of manure and after birth. Madeline looked petrified as she knelt down beside Sassafras and did her best to warm two new born piglets while not throwing up. To make a long story short – she is required to keep a journal – the story she wrote in the journal was far from flattering – she wrote how gross it was, she hated it, it stunk, and she was scared to death. People should not live like this. So at Saint Lawrence University the seniors have something called Senior Week in which they are free to party or do whatever they please for 5 days prior to graduation. So what did Madeline do? She showed up on our farm first thing Monday morning, (Ok it was 9AM give her a break), she worked with us everyday of her free week on our “real” farm. At the end of which she told us how terrific the experience was.
Stella arrived with her 12 member First Year Program as expected. When I asked the group if anyone had any fears, concerns or issues, Stella volunteered that she was scared to death of horses and hated large animals. Therefore I made Stella our horse person for the semester. Needless to say it was a very, very rocky start for Stella and our horse, Pearl. However, by the end of the semester this young woman harnessed Pearl, skidded logs from the woods, rode standing on the bobsled and had the confidence of a seasoned teamster. In her journal she wrote it was the BEST, worst experience she had ever had.
I was not aware of any family issues big Jess was having during the time he was at Bittersweet. Jess was on the 0 and 10 football team and found himself doing community service on our farm. Apparently he enjoyed his punishment because he convinced his advisor to place him in full credit classes on our farm for two semesters. He worked his butt off in the woods and started construction of Ann’s shoot house, (the video of which he put on You Tube). He came back to Saint Lawrence University after graduation for the Home Coming of the 4 and 0 freshmen team. There he grilled the First Year Program kids not about football but about our farm. Was the shoot house done? Would it be done before winter? How come you haven’t spent more time there?
I have way more to say about Nicole, but I will start by simply calling her amazing. Based primarily on my bias and prejudices I thought this 21 year old sorority girl would wither, die, and be devoured by pigs at Bittersweet Farm. Well, was I wrong! The first time she came out I thought she was dressed like a typical sorority sister, (is there such a creature anymore?), ready to go shopping after her beauty treatment. So naturally I put her in the pig field with 5 sows, 1 boar and 6 SUNY Potsdam boys. It was cold, the field was flooded, the electric fence was down and the sows were in heat. A nice quiet, easy day on the farm. She immediately stepped up and pounded in cedar posts, distracted and sorted pigs, ran page wire, all while dressed in an outfit more expensive than all my clothes, and more suited to Rodeo Drive than a pig pen. As it turns out, this 18 year old sophomore had never been on any farm before and was amazing. She has been back three times since, once as, what I wrongly thought, the leader of 16 of her sorority sisters. (A few of which were real sorority girls, like You have spiders!) My dear, wonderful friend, Mary Hussman is one of Nicole’s professors and shared with me how Nicole’s new found passion is as a locavore, convinced of the efficacy of preserving old ways and establishing a community of small scale, diversified Farmers of the Future.
Is this seeding the future? I believe it is.
Maddy was quiet and reserved the entire semester at the farm, competent but lacking confidence. One day her and her mother had arrived, and while I was talking and giving a tour to Mom they announced that I had convinced Maddy to dropout of an ‘all expense paid’ education at a prestigious liberal arts college and become an unpaid, overworked WWOOFER! Now wait a minute Mom – that was not my intent. But Mom’s eyes lit up, she hugged me, thanked me and said that if she had had the same confidence building experience that we gave her daughter, she would be a WWOOFER today. Maddy WWOOFs in many states out west and emails us from time to time reminding us of things she learned while here.
Erin and I come from very different planets and developed a system by which if she was sick of me talking she would make the sign of the cross in front of me. This meant I was to shut up.
As well, if I were picking in the greenhouse and talking to myself alone for 2 hours, because early to Erin was 6:30am, she would quietly go one row behind me and begin her work of the day while never interrupting my conversation with myself. She started out not knowing much about greens production. When she left, she went to a very small farm in New Zealand that produced greens for a niche market. The young couple she worked for was very surprised and pleased as Erin was the first WWOOFER they had that knew of mizuna and minutina, ruby streaks and golden streaks, what to do with lambs quarter and wild mustard, how to plant, tend, harvest, wash, pack, present and use many different greens. She received the ‘I Survived Bittersweet Farm’ T-shirt.
After her stay in New Zealand she presented me with a book of poems by Wendell Berry, titled The Mad Farmer Poems. In it she wrote:
“To Brian, the best MAD farmer I know. “
Either she doesn’t know any other farmers or she sees me for how insane I really am.
We often see that having help is not very helpful. One intern was adamant that she had lived with the indigenous people of Peru, but after having encountered a mouse in the cabin and a garden snake in the bean row, she insisted that we put her up in a hotel because in her home on the 83rd floor of an apartment building, there were no cockroaches nor rats in the upper East Side.
After Hector drove the tractor through the new fence, after the $489.00 chainsaw had to be replaced, after the nightshades were found in the salad prepared by our young farmers, after not one, but two baby chicks were stepped on, after many thousands of dollars of losses, we continue on our exciting endeavor. I make mistakes every day. I encourage our young farmers to make every mistake they can, at our expense, because it is not their mistake until they make it. To make it to the future we must all free ourselves to learn from our missteps, mistakes and inexperience. Some farmers farm for 30 years but have only 1 year of experience.
Unlike some of the Confined Animal Feeding Operations who send buses to the Mexican border and haul back immigrants who are paid $12.00 per hour, work 16 hours per day, 6 days per week and can not leave the CAFO for 3 years, we employ subtle tactics of persuasion, using promises of great food and lots of fresh air, to ensnare inexperienced, unknowing, young people to work from 5am to 11pm, 365 days a year, for no pay, in miserable conditions, and shortly after they do escape us, with tears in their eyes – they willingly return for more. Can the future really be seen without tears in our eyes?
Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been quoted as having said;
“A nation that destroys its’ soils, destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.”
I would like to add that the meadows and edges that purify our water may hold answers to future sustainable food production. Feed the soil first, then feed yourself and all those who hunger to learn.
The Earth is all any generation has. Today we must recognize that the earth has limits to our pillaging. As contemporary food producers we must realize that we are working with ancient life forms that deserve care, respect and reverence. Everything is connected. Look for connections, relationships, expect, demand, embrace and cherish diversity in everything. Everything a farmer does effects her, her family, her neighbors, her community and our Mother. The future belongs to those who nurture. All of life really is connected (have you ever heard of the six degrees of separation?) We are all connected. It is all about our relationship with the soil, the seeds, the plants, our family, our friends, neighbors, our community.
As stewards of the Earth, food producers must blend today’s science with basic core values to create products that support the life force in the soil, on the farm and in the community. Community starts with community organizers. It is time now to build communities through regenerative agricultural practices. Think permaculture, perennial grains, biodynamics, heirloom varieties, heritage breeds, young minds, and changing works. To be truly sustainable food production must be valued and include many, many more very important producers. The more people living and working in rural settings, the more people there are to care for agriculture and the environment.
Joel Salatin has said; –“If land stewardship is to be done well it is going to take more loving stewards on the land. It can not be done well when we have (giant) driverless tractors run by GPS.”
Listen carefully to the words of Clarissa Pinkole Estes
“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.”
The opposite of poverty is justice.
Every word I repeated to you today, every quote I used, I used because it adds real meaning to my life’s dream. I look to traditions of the past to build a diverse and sustainable farming system. I acknowledge my debt to my ancestors. First to the hunter-gatherers who collected grubs and roots, hunted animals for food, and lived in tight knit communities that set the stage for farming. I acknowledge my debt to all of our ancestors who domesticated plants and animals by selecting and saving seed, and breeding the most suited. By doing this we entered into a symbiotic relationship with these plants and animals that benefitted both us and them and in the process changed the landscape of Earth.
If we are truly “investing” in the future, none of us will have excess. We all will have just enough. Small is beautiful. We only have that which we give away. We share. Sharing is caring. Look to the edges for more answers.
Tags: farming, local, new york, organic, rural life, sustainability