A Morning At Bittersweet Farm

by Lauren Olson

Between petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, transportation, and storage, it takes roughly ten fossil fuel calories to produce one calorie of food in the average American diet. This differential is highly unsustainable, and escaping the modern food industry requires a conscious effort. Organic farmer Brian Bennett knows that he can provide food to consumers with far reduced calorie-input, and he spends his life achieving this goal.

On Friday morning as part of our Sustainability Studies class, we took a trip to Heuvelton, New York to visit Bittersweet Farm, a small produce farm, family owned and operated by Ann and Brian Bennett. The Bennetts welcomed us graciously to their farm, then dived right into talking about their simple and sustainable life-style, the plants and animals on their farm, and their overarching farming philosophies. Between them, Ann and Brian have almost thirty years of farming experience that has led to their incredible knowledge about the systems of the natural world, how to best grow a wide variety of produce in our harsh northern climate, and how to save seeds for the next year’s crops.

Bittersweet grows beautiful, organic vegetables, but as Ann and Brian made a point to highlight, they do not waste time making their gardens look pristine with nary a weed in sight. In fact, the Bennetts welcome weeds appearing in amongst their vegetables and around the garden edges. No, they’re not crazy, and they don’t just pretend to love weeds as an excuse to get out of pulling them. The North Country is overrun with deer who are attracted to the produce in weed-free gardens because all of the other vegetation has been eliminated. Weeds can also act as natural pest control, and many have health benefits. The Bennetts plant Sweet Annie in their greenhouses, a “weed” that has a sweet smell, has been used to treat fever and is being studied as a potential treatment for malaria.

 When visiting a North Country farm in February, there is not much to see beyond empty greenhouses and snow-covered fields, but the Bennett’s farm is active, even in the middle of winter. They have animals of every kind: chickens and turkeys, a horse named Pearl who plows the fields with Brian, pigs and sheep, and shaggy brown highland cattle, all pasture-raised and grass fed. These animals live remarkably happy lives, and the Bennett’s, who have a deep respect for every creature that lives on their farm, love to show them off to any visitor who drops by. Brian said, “Let’s go grab us some sheep!” and then plunked baby lambs directly into our arms.

Brian is confident that if (when) the world goes to hell in a hand basket and imported foods and fossil fuels are no longer available, he will be able to sustain fourteen people very well from the food grown on his farm. But, he says, he and his family could not do this alone. Maintaining a farm is a community effort, and Bittersweet welcomes community members and students every season to help out. Students especially love volunteering at Bittersweet because of its relaxed atmosphere where mistakes are seen as a crucial part of the learning experience. If a student accidently kills a chicken or runs through a fence with a tractor, the Bennetts are quick to remind that mistakes happen and imperfection should never be an excuse for giving up or not trying at all.

Here on the Sustainability Semester, we are trying to figure out what “living sustainably” means to us as individuals and as a community. We have had endless discussions about taking shorter showers and turning off the lights. Balance is a theme that keeps reappearing in these conversations in class or at the dinner table. We see that a crucial part of being sustainable in the modern world is about making choices, finding a balance between what we want and what we truly need, and being conscientious about the impacts of the decisions that we ultimately make. Ann and Brian talked about the importance of balance in their own lives: cell phone towers are the number-two killer of songbirds, but petroleum based fertilizers are the number-one killer; the Bennetts choose to have cell phones because they are an enormous convenience, but they choose not to use any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides on their crops. Ann and Brian emphasized the importance of deliberating, choosing what matters most, and sticking with that decision.

After leaving Bittersweet with promises to return once the growing season is underway, a statement by Ann Bennett kept resonating: listen to what the soil, the animals, the plants are saying. Only by listening can we hope to make intelligent decisions and live harmoniously with the natural cycles of the Earth.

- Lauren Olson and Emma Duffany