The Accidental Farmer

From pocket-sized herb garden to family-sized homestead—with a lot of learning and a little luck.

June 22, 2011

The first memory I have of Stonegate Farm, Matthew Benson’s property in New York’s Hudson Valley, comes from a visit just over 5 years ago. We’d been photographing a garden nearby and ended the day with dinner at Stonegate. Matthew’s wife, Heidi, his daughter, Daisy, and his son, Miles, were the rest of the party, and we went out to look at what was afoot in the small greenhouse and little formal herb garden. It was box-edged pretty and, while productive, small enough to be manageable. But there was a glint in his eye as Matthew began talking about his plans for the garden’s future—plans that have matured into the Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program he now runs from what has now become a small farm, fully organic and biodynamic.

He is still photographing, as readers will know, and is in fact nearly finished writing his first book, The Photo-graphic Garden (to be published in spring 2012 by Rodale). But with so many of us turning our thoughts (and ourselves) to the land, and to considering the hows, whys, and maybes of making even our urban front lawns into vegetable gardens, I wanted to share some of Matthew’s observations about his ups and downs—the hilarity and the poignant moments he has experienced over these first few years as he became “The Accidental Farmer.” As he reveals, there is much more to it than “take 5 acres...” —Ethne Clarke


June 13, 2009
Lucky Strike

The lightning storm on Tuesday this week took out a 100-foot white pine that shattered and fell only 10 feet from the new orchard! After crawling out from under the bed (city boy that I am—was—I’ve never made peace with the Sturm und Drang weather here in the Hudson Valley), I picked up splintered, still-smoking wood across the farm. This place was landscaped more than 150 years ago, so most of our trees are in hospice, one dead branch away from the big arboretum in the sky.

Besides weather, the other drama this week was a road trip to Goshen to speak to the county legislature in order to secure an Agricultural District designation for Stonegate, which was granted. It seems the biointensive micro farm may be a model for the future after all!

July 18, 2009
Survivor: Stonegate

Who said farming was a bore! Blights, fungal pandemics, plagues of rogue insects. It’s a reality show waiting to happen. The 4-H sirens have been wailing for a few weeks now: “Late Blight! Anthracnose Fungus!” The ever-vigilant watchdogs at the Cornell extension just issued this dire missive:

“Commercial growers and home gardeners alike need to be on the lookout for late blight—a very destructive and very infectious disease that’s infecting tomato and potato plants. Late blight is the same disease that caused the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s(!) Such widespread occurrence in Northeastern U.S. this early in the season is extremely rare.”

Wow. Let’s promise to cherish every cherry tomato that doesn’t pack up its indeterminate brood and head for the hills of Killarney.

August 1, 2009
If You Shoot It, They Will Come

Nothing is safe from the camera around here, and the usual subjects have become perfectly blasé about voguing for me. If they strike a pose, I will shoot. Even the plants seem to know when the light is just right, and when I’ll be passing by, and they beam their best botanical smiles.

Stonegate was restored and designed with the camera in mind, with frameable views and an attention to the pattern language of gardens and buildings that create opportunities for image making. It’s been a long process, more than 10 years on now, of creating a visual dialogue with this place, and just when I think there can’t possibly be another pixel’s worth, more images get made. Apparently, if you don’t photograph it, it never existed.

My daughter, Daisy, started calling me a farm-ographer this year, since she sees me more often behind the Troy-Bilt tiller than the camera these days, but a true sustainable farm usually has many irons (or hay rakes) in the fire. The chicks had a portrait session in the studio this week, and between much pooping and squawking, they were quite poised.

August 8, 2009
The End of the Beginning

We’ve reached the halfway point of our first season this week. Spears of slender purple gladioli are in flower, their tall stems crowned in a ripple of blooms, signaling what we hope will be the end of a long bout of adversity with weather. How appropriate, then, that this “funeral flower” should emerge just as we bury the last of our blighted and dearly departed tomatoes (best Monty Python accent: “I’m not quite dead yet!” “Well, you will be soon!” Thwack!).

October 24, 2009
The Impractical Swoon

Last year I fell so hard for a couple of sweet Nubian goats that before any practical deliberation could set in, two anxiously bleating kids were on board, and the no-nonsense 4-H girls were stocking the truck with bags of feed and formula.

I bought a subscription to Dairy Goat Journal. I bottle-fed them daily (did I mention they weren’t weaned?!). I took their portraits, intrigued by their strange devil eyes, as oblong as mail slots. But before the week was out, so were they. I clearly wasn’t ready for ruminants and thought of them more as props than responsibilities, and so sheepishly (goatishly?) took them back to their owners.

It seems no matter how well we measure our decisions, we’re always open to acts of ridiculous, blundering folly. There were moments in the endless rain and blight this season when the idea of farming itself seemed like an act of folly more than an act of God (it’s easier to shake a fist at God, after all, than yourself). At times, it was as though I were toiling in a medieval Brueghel painting, when I’d imagined Cézanne. But I’m coming through, humbled and wiser, planning for a season of plenty next year. Fool that I am.

End 2009
Here we are at the end of our first growing season at Stonegate Farm! Much of the year was spent clearing land, putting in infrastructure (fences, trenches), amending soil with compost and green manure, building raised and deeply dug beds, and healing aching backs! Now that the farm is mostly asleep, we have time to appreciate what we’ve accomplished and plan for next season. As we batten down for the season, we’re grateful for our gracious farm, the good land it sits on, and our healthy, hardworking family.

May 27, 2010
Magical Realism

Pulling a warm egg from beneath a broody hen is a magical thing: the ruffled murmur as she relinquishes; the egg’s oval perfection, its bone-smooth promise. And fitting so perfectly in the palm of the hand, as though the relationship between laying and gathering always was.

But when a new CSA member stopped by this week to say hello, I was unprepared for the power and imprint of memory on her visit. She had grown up on a farm in Iowa, and her connection to that time seemed to rill through her as we did our walkabout. On the way out, we visited the hens in the “Cage aux Fowl.” On putting a warm egg in her palm, she began to cry softly. Clearly, the evocation was almost too much. There was some awkward silence as she held the egg—and her childhood—in her hand and struggled for composure. But she seemed grateful for the connection that the experience summoned up.

Collective memory, even unconjured, ties us to a past when farming and growing food were everywhere and everyone took part. For most people, the relationship between a meal and its source was immediate. In our age of industrialized distance from real food, it is small farms that serve as a common metaphor for connecting to our past, our food, and our deeper responsibilities to the planet.

June 4, 2010

From flea beetles to sawfly caterpillars to grazing woodchucks, my mixed greens have sent the critters on a serious bender.

The two forces of evil acting against the best efforts of a small, sustainable organic farm are fungi and insects, the enemies of fruit and leaf. Our cultural practices at Stonegate are OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) approved; the occasional clover or purslane weed in the mesclun greens will vouch for that. But we’re not about to roll over to an onslaught.

I’ve been somewhat lax about control in the past, thinking I’d strike a balance between harvest and loss, but nature is not always so benign and measured (witness last summer’s biblical rains and ensuing blight). So we spray lime sulfur to control the various fungi, kaolin clay to infuriate the insects, and fish emulsion to send the greens into a nitrogen orgasm. If you’re ever here right after a spray, it will either smell of low tide or last week’s egg foo yong. According to nature, agriculture is highly unnatural. A farm is no Darwinian paradigm. If it were, we’d all be very successful weed farmers. Instead, we coddle and protect our fragile crops. A farm without the conceit of intervention, order, and control would simply no longer be. There’s no détente to be bartered between us and our enemies. It’s strike or be stricken.

So I find myself out on the farm in the wee, small hours before the heat and humidity rise, pinching tiny, lacquer-backed flea beetles between my fingers and loving every control-freakin’ minute of it.

July 16, 2010
Helter Swelter

We don’t grow a lot of dirt at Stonegate. We plant, interplant, succession-plant, companion-plant, Robert Plant. Bare dirt is inefficient. If the natural world were allowed to prevail over the imposition of agriculture, there would be no dirt. Every bit of soil would be colonized by something green, seeking purchase and life. A walk in the forest will bear witness to that.

As the climate becomes increasingly unstable, we may as well throw out the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Its reliance on past weather patterns and cycles seems moot. A new edition could just advise: Be prepared for anything. Frogs, hail, locusts. The planet has always been physically bipolar; now its climate is, as well.

Farming longs for some level of predictability; it wants to be scripted, thought out and measured. Planning is at its core, and maintenance is the drumbeat. Now I’m being told the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map is even being redrawn to adjust for climate change. Should I be ordering seed for kumquats and ‘Ponderosa’ lemons?

When the rain finally arrived, its cool, wet relief was almost surreal. At first it drummed on the bone-dry ground, which sent the water pooling and running. But soon the land was guzzling every drop in delicious, life-giving gulps. Excuse me while I kiss the sky.

August 13, 2010
Work Is Love Made Visible

My wife’s supercilious grandmother used to tell me I had peasant blood, which I took as a compliment. Better an honest, hardworking peasant than a soft-palmed scoundrel. Good, physical work, with something to show for it besides tight abdominals (a bountiful harvest, say) is an act of alignment and sometimes even exaltation. It ties us back to the order of the natural world. Work is what the wild things do—all day long, for food, shelter, survival, maybe even joy.

I bought a new/old tractor for the farm this year. It’s seen plenty of hard work, and it’s in its forties, so we’re peers. Its throaty, cast-iron rumble is reassuring. No squeaky plastic or pot metal here. No imported parts. It was built somewhere in the Midwest, back when industry had integrity and work wasn’t just virtual bustle. It rambles across the property, making a clean cut in the orchard, indifferent to the carpet of twigs and small stumps.

Growing food for others is a physical act. “Such hard work!” they say. Yes, but how fulfilling, how joyful. “The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it,” said John Ruskin, an English philosopher.

We have become more capable, more patient, more resourceful, more humble. Work on the land develops deep connective tissue with simple purpose—something we’re in great need of in an age of tweets and texts.

Read On...
From the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder to America’s most famous outsider, Henry David Thoreau, there’s been a back-to-the-land movement for everyone—and books to guide others on their journey.

American Georgics: Writing on Farming, Culture, and the Land, edited by Hagenstein, Gregg, and Donahue (Yale University Press, 2011). Collected essays and writings by agrarian reformers, utopians, and back-to-the-landers from 1780 to the present, from James Madison to Willa Cather, Andrew Jackson Downing to Wendell Berry.

Grow the Good Life, by Michele Owens (Rodale, 2011). A down-to-earth woman’s treatise on how to fit a productive vegetable garden into your property and your life—and why it is imperative to do so when the security of our food systems and our health are under pressure from industrial agriculture and genetically modified crops.

The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener, by Elliot Coleman (Chelsea Green, 1995). The subtitle tells it all. Coleman is one of the self-sufficiency generation’s heroes, and his experience and knowledge, married to that of his wife, Barbara Damrosch, has informed organic thought for the past 4 decades and continues to inspire Matthew Benson and his work at Stonegate.

The Good Life: Scott and Helen Nearing’s Sixty Years of Self Sufficient Living (Schoken Books, 1990). The Nearings were political, economic, and moral refugees of the Depression and sought to create a life that was free from dependency on all external agencies. This volume brings together their two books, which encouraged other Depression-scared urbanites to seek a good life in rural America during the 1930s and ’40s. —Ethne Clarke