About Town: Orange Farmer Grows the Hard Way

The Recorder, July 24th, 2016, by Richie Davis. The hoe that Andrea Benjamin holds beside her stands a good foot and a half taller than she does.

But the 27-year-old farm hand was up to the giant task of hand-weeding more than an acre of the cornfield where she takes a moment to reflect on the corn that she’s grown, despite an extremely dry season.

Inspired by none less than Henry David Thoreau, who writes in his “Walden” chapter, “The Bean Field” about how he planted 2½ acres of beans, walked barefoot seven miles of rows and worked the soil, Benjamin experimented in whether she could plant and grow about an acre of corn on a rented parcel a few hundred feet from Late Mattawa and a couple of doors down Holtshire Road from Edward O’Brien’s dairy farm, where she’s worked for the last three years.

She says it took 50 hours, mostly in the afternoons after tending O’Brien’s herd of roughly 70 Holsteins from 4:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Benjamin, of Athol, brings a dog-eared copy of “Walden” in her pickup truck to reference what inspired her to invest $400 in her project, including $100 in rent.Though not as ambitious as Thoreau’s 2½ acres, she said, “I thought this is more manageable. It was an experiment, a challenge to myself of endurance.”

Instead of seven linear miles of beans, she figures she hoed 2½ miles.

“When the weeds got too high, I was on my hands and knees, yanking weeds out of the ground,” which for years has been planted in field corn for the Hunt Farm. By the time she got to 170 rows, back from the road, the sweet corn peters out.

“Some of that I didn’t hoe because I just got too discouraged,” says Benjamin, pointing. “That’s where I gave up. I could still weed it. But I just had other things to do.”

It isn’t that Benjamin tackled her experiment without help. In a little black journal, probably like the one Thoreau kept, is her handwritten record of the farmers who helped and each day’s work: from 2 to 4 p.m. one day, 2 to 6 p.m. another day, even 2 to 8 p.m.

She also shows a series of snapshots recording the crop’s progress, and recording O’Brien’s help giving her 100 cubic yards of manure, George Hunt harrowing the field, John Moore’s hand-operated seeder and Dan King’s wheel hoe, which she borrowed to till the fertilizer.

“He really gave me a lot of advice,” Benjamin says. “I’m indebted to him.”

“Here are the potatoes I planted,” she says, pointing to a photo of the row that she planted in another part of the field, beyond a row of trellised tomato plants, where she also planted several rows of squash and a few watermelon. And then in contrast to a sorry, thirsty field of corn a week or so ago, she points to another photo: “Here’s my corn, 2 inches high and full of promise. … I picked the worst year to try my project.”

Along with the other materials she reviews on the hood of her pickup is an article her grandmother sent her in January about two teenage girls farming two acres in Rhode Island.

“They have a CSA model, so they’re indebted now to customers to provide vegetables, from July to November. I feel sorry for them in this climate, but hopefully they’ve got some irrigation.”

The only irrigation that Benjamin has is the 100 gallons that she carries in daily, in 5-gallon buckets for her tomatoes, squash and potatoes, “in desperation to keep them alive.”

Thanks to those efforts, and the sawdust-laden manure that O’Brien gave her to help retain water around the plants — and also sporadic showers in recent days, the field hasn’t dried out as much as she’d feared.

Benjamin first moved to western Massachusetts from Waltham to attend the University of Massachusetts when she was 17. She left before graduating, and turned to a year-long program in auto mechanics and found that, “It’s really hard to get a job as a mechanic when you’re timid, and a girl.”

At the dairy farm, that part of her education comes in handy, she says, repairing the truck’s brakes, changing tires and doing other maintenance, along with helping milk the 42 milking cows and doing other farm chores.

“This is my project that I do in my spare time,” Benjamin says. She also studied hoof trimming at a workshop last summer in Wisconsin and agreed to trim the feet of five Hunt Farm cows as partial exchange for rent on her “experimental” cornfield.

But although the land, a couple of hundred feet down the road from Lake Mattawa, was convenient to her job and was a good place to start, the “For Sale” sign there, and the fact that the quality of the soil is too gravelly and sandy for farming, is an indication of a challenge facing not only Benjamin, but other young farmers as well.

“The trouble being young and landless is that you have to rely on other people liking you and approving of your methods,” she says. She notes that her home garden is too small for what she feels the need to be doing. “My ambitions are greater than a 10-by-10 piece. I’d like someplace where I can have my own blueberries and apple trees, but I’m afraid to invest anything like that.”

She adds, “Even this field, I could improve with more manure, but it might be sold next year, so farming is not a transient thing.”

Over the last couple of years, she had even tended blueberries for a friend with 13 acres, she says. “He said if he was feeling well this spring, he’d till some land for me. But he died. I don’t have rights there anymore.”

A week or so ago, calling the condition of the water-wanting corn “devastating,” Benjamin says, “I doubt if I’ll get any ears, so I might just pull it up now and put in a second crop of beans.”

With a little more steady rain, Benjamin says she’s optimistic that her corn crop will survive by the time it’s ready to be picked in a couple of weeks. “It’s really shot up. I’m really surprised.”

And she’s delighted to have one watermelon “the size of a fist.”

This year, which Benjamin describes as “my corn year,” taught her three things she needs: water, diversity and multiple plantings. “Last year was my potato year. Each year, I’m trying to do one species and know it well. Next year, I’ll know how to do things better, and maybe have some way to irrigate,” she said with a laugh.

In fact, Benjamin says, “The crop was almost secondary to my test of myself. And I have so many people who walk by everyday walking their dogs and biking. They’ve been so kind to me. One woman said the nicest thing: that I should be proud of myself. Everybody’s helped me.”