The Accidental Farmer

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

By Matthew Benson

Photography by Matthew Benson


Matt Benson raises chickens on his farmMay 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.

flea beetles on potato plantsJune 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.