Catherine Bennett ’16

From Soil Saviors to Sanctuaries

How Laurentian Women Are Reassembling Ecological Balance Through Small-Scale Agriculture


Catherine Bennett ’16

When I was 10 years old, a St. Lawrence student asked if I was going to continue my parent’s organic farm. “No,” I replied. I have great respect for agriculturists, but a career at Bittersweet Farm was not what I wanted to do with my life. My interests were environmental conservation or maybe journalism. It wasn’t that agriculture was daunting or unappealing; my passions simply lay in litter cleanup and tree protection.

By the end of my own stint as an environmental studies major at St. Lawrence, my career interests remained the same. But months after graduation, I didn’t feel I was going anywhere. With a little prodding from friends, however, I began drawing a logo for my own business—a business I swore I’d never go into, a business I was trying to escape: farming.

And thus was the 2016 advent of Milkweed Tussock Tubers, a small-scale, regenerative potato farm in the tiny village of DePeyster, New York, about a 30-minute drive from the St. Lawrence campus. In partnership with Bittersweet Farm, our mission is to enhance the ecosystems and communities we’re a part of while preserving endangered tuber varieties. Our strategies include planting native species and utilizing biodynamic practices, such as sowing based on the movement of celestial bodies and creating stinging nettle or cow manure garden preparations. We actively educate students, neighbors, and customers about our work, and we currently offer 10 potato varieties for sale.

Regenerative agriculture is nothing new; what’s new is that these millennia-old approaches to food production are a critical part of the conversations addressing the environmental, social, and economic challenges we face today. Over the past century, the emergence of large-scale agribusiness has come to epitomize farming in the United States. My experiences tell me that Americans have become too accustomed to their corn-fed, feedlot-raised, faceless fast-food hamburgers. This notion that “the American farmer feeds the world” gives citizens great pride in an industry they know very little about. And it’s a lie.

According to the report “Who Will Feed Us?” from the Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration, or ETC Group, large-scale global agribusiness utilizes 75 percent of Earth’s tillable land, but produces only 30 percent of the world’s food. As someone who has been farming my entire life, I am alarmed by the numerous studies outlining the toll industrial farming takes on the environmental, social, psychological, and economic well-being of communities worldwide.

Fertile land is eroding by the billions of tons annually. Tractor use, petroleum-based fertilizers, tillage, and deforestation are responsible for a significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions, and water-intensive agricultural practices are colliding with water scarcity at an unsustainable rate. Genetic crop diversity has plummeted, leaving farmers stranded when monocrops fail and trapped in debt cycles, which, in some cases, end in suicide. The research is plentiful, and the findings are unsettling.

Small-scale peasant farms like mine, however, work with Earth’s natural layers and rhythms. The ETC Group’s research also documents that small farms use just 25 percent of the world’s agricultural land and produce 70 percent of the world’s food. Our regenerative practices involve hand tools, little to no tilling, and no chemical herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers, producing diversified foods while adapting to and mitigating rapid environmental change. Healthy soils grow with the addition of compost, mulch, cover crops, and plant-animal rotations, leading to higher food nutrient content, reduced erosion, and sequestered carbon. I’ve seen firsthand how these seemingly simple methods, done on miniscule plots of land, have enormous potential to heal and feed the whole world, not just the human population.

Potatoes, for instance, grown using traditional Incan methods, outproduce industrially grown plants by 200 to 800 percent. Soils high in organic matter hold thousands of gallons more water than depleted, compacted fields. And recent data from pasture trials around the world show that over 100 percent of annual carbon dioxide emissions could be sequestered if a switch is made to regenerative, rotational agriculture.

Despite stereotypes of farming being “men’s work,” the majority of Earth’s soil artists are women, who are working to restore ecological balance. These strong, capable individuals don’t hold Ph.D.s; most of them have never attended high school, but they carry within them knowledge passed down by mothers and grandmothers, and the skills drawn from their own years of experience. Their daily activities make them experts in ways that book learning could never provide.

Numerous cultures believe in the intricate connections between female power and the land. Mohawk tradition places women as the seed savers, the ones who will grow the food and pass the legacy on to younger generations. Haudenosaunee Seed Keeper Rowen White has said, “Historically in most cultures seeds were considered feminine. In our tradition, and in many cultures and traditions across the globe, seeds have been considered a feminine aspect of the agricultural system and largely been the responsibility of women to care for them.” My own work as a female potato grower connects me to Andean farmer Regina Illamarca, who says, “We help with the planting by selecting the seed potatoes, bringing the fertilizer, sowing the seeds, and covering them with soil.”

People ask why I continue to farm despite the depressing statistics, never-ending labor, low income, gut-wrenching heartache, clear sexism, and high probability of early death.

As of 2018, I have financial incentive. New York is paying my student loans in return for five years of agricultural services through a Teach-For-America-style loan forgiveness program for young farmers. My decision, however, has nothing to do with money and everything to do with accomplishing more. I’m outside every day, listening to trees and stars, asking frogs how I can help. I am a partner in providing sanctuary for threatened species. My title of Soil Keeper reminds me that I have not only a duty, but also an opportunity to help Earth heal, and I’d be foolishly negligent not to take it. I educate others on the wonders of this life. And, in my downtime, I do get to write. Environmental studies and journalism, remember?

Answering that question of why, however, I oftentimes laugh and say, “Because I’m insane. What other reason is there?” Then I ask them to join me. Because there’s one more reason I do this, and there are times when it’s the only reason I get out of bed: I am not alone. There are millions of women just like me, striving to reassemble balance through connected, regenerative agriculture.

And, also like me, many of these women are Laurentians. Here are just a few.


Kate Spring, ’09

Major: English and Environmental Studies
Good Heart Farmstead, Worcester, Vermont
goodheartfarmstead.com

Kate Spring spent a season post-graduation working as a school garden supervisor in Fairbanks, Alaska, teaching students to garden and run a CSA enterprise. In 2011, she and her husband, Edge Fuentes, moved to Hyde Park, Vermont, accepting apprenticeships at Applecheek Farm. Along with their experiences, they developed their business plan and settled in Worcester, Vermont. In spring 2013, they opened Good Heart Farmstead, an L3C, or low-profit limited liability corporation with both a charitable and educational purpose.

Kate and Edge’s first-and-foremost mission is social responsibility. Their goal is simple: “to grow healthy, whole foods and to make them available to people of all income levels, increasing the accessibility of local food to low-income Vermonters. We strive to strengthen our community through food and to promote creativity, communication, peace, and learning through a direct connection to the land and the food we eat.” 

“The name Good Heart comes from the saying that when soil is in ‘good heart,’ it is alive and healthy,” says Kate. “We add that when people are in good heart, they’re healthy and happy.” In building soil and human happiness, Kate enhances those vital connections between farmers and consumers.


Hannah Brook Smith, ’15

Major: Art and Art History
Honey Brook Art and Wellness, Rochester, New York
honeybrookartandwellness.com

Hannah Brook Smith is a woman of many talents, running both her own business—Honey Brook Art and Wellness—and managing a growing community garden. After environmental toxins derailed her health, Hannah came to rely on clean food, clean water, and clean air as restorative solaces.

Honey Brook began as a printmaker, papermaker, and bookmaker through St. Lawrence. But in the spring of 2017, Hannah set out to create and expand the business to include non-toxic beeswax candles sourced from local farmers, wellness events, and by rejuvenating a neglected community garden in Rochester, New York.

The garden now brings neighbors and pollinators together, providing a healthy space for all. Hannah loves seeing others enjoy the garden. She believes, “If we are all willing to be part of daily, small, local actions, that is how the world will remember it is a communal unit, and not separate, individual parts.”


Arla Casselman, ’11

Major: Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems
Ewing Fruit Company, Warren, Maine
ewingfruitco.com

Arla Casselman designed her own major at St. Lawrence, combining courses from the environmental studies and sociology programs in order to focus on local agriculture and sustainability. “I remember afternoons at Bittersweet Farm in the greenhouse helping to start seedlings,” says Arla.

She now puts her expertise in social and environmental interconnectedness to work in her teaching at the local high school and at Ewing Fruit Company, a farm she and husband John Grote began in Maine. They supply wild organic blueberries to over 20 local restaurants. 

Ewing Fruit began as a 30-acre operation, but local popularity and an expanding skill set allowed Arla and John to acquire another 30 acres for the 2018 growing season. Like so many, Arla felt incredibly welcomed by the North Country agricultural community while at St. Lawrence, and she has used her experiences with St. Lawrence farmers to fuel her own food revolution miles away.


Emily Liebelt ’16, butcher

Major: Anthropology
Formerly at Mace Chasm Farm, Keeseville, New York

Emily Liebelt’s enthusiasm for regenerative agriculture germinated during her First-Year Program, “Food and Identity.” Through classwork, volunteering at littleGrasse Foodworks, and her work with the environmental nonprofit Adirondack Council, she began to realize her passions were livestock work and environmental conservation. Inspired in 2013 by butchering her first chicken at Bittersweet Farm, she moved to the Adirondacks post-graduation and began working in the three-woman butcher shop at Mace Chasm Farm in Keeseville, New York.

“I feel incredibly empowered in the physically demanding and satisfyingly creative job of butchery,” says Emily. “However, it’s an all-out sprint to make enough money to stay afloat through the winter.”

“I can’t help but notice what an anomaly people think a woman working in butchery is,” she adds. “I’ve been told I don’t ‘look like a butcher’ and to ‘watch my hands’ as customers watch me debone a ham.”

The gender stereotyping and long workweeks are not the only challenges for Emily. In December 2018, Emily left Mace Chasm Farm and moved to Albany where she is now working for the Bureau of Wildlife, Game Management at The New York Department of Environmental Conservation while pursuing her master’s degree in resilient and sustainable communities. She plans to return to small agriculture and says, “I’m not going to give up on livestock and butchery if I can help it.”


Emma Sutphen, ’15

Major: Anthropology and African Studies
Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center/Coogan Farm, Mystic, Connecticut
dpnc.org/coogan-farm/

Emma Sutphen was well-distanced from dirt while she was at St. Lawrence. As she puts it, “I was a completely different person.” 

Emma is deeply involved in both agriculture and education as a Coogan Farm assistant farm manager at the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center/Coogan Farm and the assistant director of the Eastern Connecticut Community Garden Association in Mystic, Connecticut.

She is proud of the work done over the past three years, which tripled production through the implementation of biointensive, regenerative agricultural practices. Her work helps maintain an 11,250-square-foot biointensive Giving Garden, promoting healthy soils and growing thousands of pounds of produce for Southeastern Connecticut’s mobile food pantries.

“I’m proud that our garden benefits communities of different scales,” Emma says. “Last year, we donated 17,000 pounds of produce, and this year, our target is 20,000. This wouldn’t be possible if we weren’t operating within a regenerative farming model. Our mission to feed the food insecure utilizing regenerative practices has attracted a community of over 300 volunteers to our garden.”


Colie Collen, ’06

Major: English and Environmental Studies
Flower Scout, Troy, New York
flower-scout.com/about

For Colie Collen, agriculture is a way to explore her creativity and love of the outdoors. It’s important, she says, for her to have a physical relationship to nature, and after many years farming on the West and East coasts, she opened Flower Scout in 2012. Flower Scout is a unique urban floral design business, rejuvenating abandoned lots and turning them into vegetative wonders. Along with her urban plots, the flowers come from local farms, and secret woodland forage spots.

In working to heal abused land, Colie has also connected community members and provided threatened pollinators with refuge and food. Flower Scout now supports a 25-member CSA.

“I love the work I do now because of the way it helps me think about impermanence, labor, relationships, and about concepts of beauty,” she says.


Lettie Stratton, ’12

Major: English/Creative Writing
Hoot ‘n’ Holler Urban Farm, Boise, Idaho

“The more people growing stuff, the better,” says Lettie Stratton, who credits the hard-working Community Based Learning (CBL) department at St. Lawrence with introducing her to her current life. Through CBL, Lettie was able to explore a variety of North Country farms and continued farming in Vermont, New Zealand, and Idaho after graduation.

In 2017, she and her partner, Fiona Luray, began Hoot ‘n’ Holler Urban Farm, a diversified urban farm in downtown Boise, Idaho, which has become an integral part of the locavore movement. Hoot ‘n’ Holler supplies their community with herbs, vegetables, and other locally sourced products such as jams and applesauce. This year, they are focusing their efforts on their own large urban garden and notifying their followers of offerings throughout the season.

Aside from her love of digging in the dirt, Lettie enjoys having a visceral connection to where her food is grown. Through Hoot ‘n’ Holler, she and Fiona have added to an expanding list of small-scale food producers, all while enjoying the continued evolution of their farming experience.


 

Remembering

Enid Wonnacott ’83

(1961 – 2019)

If the organic farming movement has any Rock Stars, Enid Wonnacott, would be recognized as one of the greats. Wonnacott passed away peacefully on January 19, 2019, at her home in Huntington, New Hampshire. She was 57 years old.

At St. Lawrence University, Wonnacott studied biology and chemistry and first learned about organic agriculture. During a semester in Kenya, she learned how to treat cobra bites and hand-milk a 70-cow herd. That semester planted the seed for her eventual study of and work in sustainable and organic agriculture. After college, she travelled the world as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow and Fulbright Scholar, studying sustainable agriculture in New Zealand, Greece, India, Nepal and Norway.

Wonnacott began her tenure at Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) in 1987, inheriting two milk crates and one filing cabinet. Over her long career, she worked to develop the National Organic Program - developing a farmer-driven organic certification program, championing a robust farm-to-school partnership in Vermont that became a national model for broadening access to local and organic food, and leading the organization with an open-minded approach that made room at the table for everyone.

Wonnacott believed that collaboration and mutual support are critical to sustaining agriculture in Vermont and helping more farmers move toward organic practices. Her work was honored with an induction into the Vermont Agricultural Hall of Fame last summer. Enid was the first member of the Vermont Agricultural Hall of Fame to be exclusively affiliated with organic agriculture.

Source: Burlington Free Press and SevenDaysVT.com