Three Springs Fruit Farm’s Ben Wenk, a seventh generation farmer from Pennsylvania, was our featured speaker at our 12th Farmland Feast on Monday, November 10. Here’s what he had to say:
There is a contradictory nature about agriculture that I have always found fascinating. On one hand, the art of agriculture is ancient and has been practiced by human beings for over 12,000 years. Yet, each spring brings renewal: new opportunities and new challenges – testing everyone in agriculture, regardless of his or her age.
As a young farmer representing his family’s seventh generation, I am the beneficiary of both the wisdom and sacrifice of my ancestors, but am also responsible for crafting my generation’s legacy on our land.
In 2006, I graduated from Penn State University’s College of Agriculture with a degree in Agroecology. There I learned the science behind making an agricultural environment and the natural environment work together harmoniously. After a brief period of soul searching and kicking the tires, I decided to return home and introduce our farm to selling at farmers markets.
This was a big change because Three Springs only sold our fruit wholesale to processors for applesauce, juice, and pie filling or to distributors for fresh sales in grocery stores. My father David and Uncle John allowed me the opportunity to make this business decision, although I didn’t have a good sense of how many changes this would entail at the time.
For starters, in addition to growing tree fruit, I would have to start growing vegetables to make my farmstand more attractive and profitable. Now you might think, what is so controversial about growing vegetables? This doesn’t seem like such an odd thing. But in Bigglerville, PA, the “Apple Capital USA” vegetables are grown in your backyard, not on “good orchard ground.” My little acre patch raised a lot of skeptical neighbors’ eyebrows.
What’s more, I started keeping odd hours. Odd, like sorting tomatoes until 1 a.m. or odd like waking up at 4:30 a.m. to drive to market. Two farmers markets per week that first year seemed like a lot. Now, seven years later with many crippling box truck disasters, collapsing market tents, bad weather, and crop struggles under my belt, Three Springs Fruit Farm attends seven Chesapeake Bay regional farmers markets weekly including the vibrant Silver Spring FRESHFARM Market. Our veggie patch has grown from one acre to seven and our neighbors now come to me for advice about growing their own vegetables.
But really, this idea of diversifying our crops wasn’t a new one. It was standard practice in Adams County just two generations ago. And while different crops made for more full tables at market, it also had other benefits. This diversity made more work for our diligent crew, who now had full time jobs all year, planting annuals and harvesting spring veggies as well as taking care of our fruit tress. Furthermore, the crop diversity breeds biodiversity. These new crops helped raise populations of beneficial insects and limited susceptibility to all kinds of diseases.
In 2010, I was able to parlay our sustainable growing practices into certification by the Food Alliance. This third party certification verifies that we are reducing our pesticide use, protecting the Chesapeake Bay with nutrient and soil conservation tactics, enhancing the biodiversity around our farm, managing our farm labor in a fair and socially responsible way. Market customers liked this certification and our sales have increased by 16% since our first certified crop.
In 1993, my grandfather Donald Wenk passed away. Though my memories of him are few and dear, he continues to inspire me today. In spite of what we now know about the benefits of a diversified farm, post war farming wisdom told American farmers to “get big or get out.” Donnie chose to go big into apples and a fledgling Grower Cooperative over an allegiance to corporate poultry (thanks, Pap!). But it wasn’t an easy road. After taking out a large loan to buy apple trees, my grandfather farmed during the day and worked the night shift at the box factory in town until his trees came to bear. In 1964, apple trees didn’t reach full maturity for fifteen years or more. For my grandfather, this meant working around the clock for over a decade.
My grandfathers’ sacrifice and my father and uncle’s perseverance are the foundation on which my new endeavors were built. There are no words to express how fortunate I was to have a successful family farm to return to after my schooling.
Being a younger man on an older farm has allowed me to put my youthful energy into some new enterprises that haven’t been explored for generations. If I can match the perseverance of my ancestors, these opportunities can make my farm better for my heirs, just as Pap’s farm was for Dad, and Dad’s farm was for me. Three Springs Fruit Farm is now nearing completion of the legal requirements for our own commercial hard cider business, P&Q Cider Company. The release of our first cider is scheduled for the spring of 2015 and I’m excited about our new venture into this historic American beverage.
And that’s what it’s all about for me. A new face practicing the ancient art of agriculture. I am working the same soil as my ancestors, honoring their sacrifice and devoting a new energy into their same struggles. I am striving to improve my family business and preserve my family’s land. Humbly appreciating the ways in which my work and my land improve me everyday. I am feeding my local foodshed with clean, wholesome food and maintaining the vibrancy of the natural world through our farming practices and doing it with a smile. And each spring, when the buds break and new life flows into the farmland of my ancestors, I am again inspired to pursue this ancient art for the generations yet to come.