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


Fresh Vegetables from Stonegate FarmJuly 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