It is the morning of January 16th, four days before Donald J. Trump is sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. It is, coincidentally, four days before many believe the end of the world will begin. For Brian Bennett, his wife Ann, and his daughter Catherine, it is just Monday.
The Bennetts, owners and operators of Bittersweet Farm in Heuvelton, New York, are resistance fighters. However, they do not fight with guns, uniforms, or marching orders; their fight requires hand tools, a 1958 International Harvester, and an extensive knowledge of heritage breed ruminants and poultry.
According to the USDA, In the United States, the average farm is now 441 acres, and large farms (over one million dollars in sales) account for 66 percent of all sales despite making up only four percent of all farms. A dairy down the road from Bittersweet farm is rumored to have 8,000 cows. CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) dot the map of upstate New York, and Sodexo and US Foods truck thousands of pounds of food to nearby college campuses. These are daunting facts for anyone, let alone the farm that watches it all take place right before their eyes.
Ignoring the dark shadow of big Ag in New York State, Brian says he is “already on his second breakfast” by the time I come in from the cabin to the main house. It is 5:30 am. The plate that arrives in front of me is stacked high with bacon from Sassafras, the Bennett’s Tamworth Sow that the Bennetts butchered this past fall, and a frittata made with eggs from their Barred Rock chickens. Bittersweet sticks to heritage breeds, and Tamworths in particular are an Old-English, long and lean bacon hog.
Bittersweet sees so much more than just the meat they will receive at the end; they also see that Tamworths are excellent mothers, hardy in brutal North Country winters, and lacking the selective genetics that mar many other pig breeds. When I tell Brian that I usually have just one piece of bacon for breakfast, a smile rises out of his beard. “Me too” he says. “In fact, I only have half a piece. A piece is one pound right?”
Brian leaves me to eat while he starts dishes, but I don’t get past my first bite when he turns and asks me, “Do you think there’s any hope at all that food can be a valued labor product instead of a cheap commodity?” That starts a conversation that continues over a 12-hour workday, a day Brian later remarks was “a pretty easy day”. My bruised body, and ego, would disagree.
Between tarping the roof of the solarium, chopping wood, feeding animals, and chasing cows down the street and back, Brian finds time to ask me questions, and teach me, about associative economics, international farming statistics, and the slow money movement.
For a farmer in a county that went strongly for Donald J. Trump, and where stereotypes abound, these are not questions anyone would think an old farmer would ask. See, for Brian and his family, Bittersweet Farm is not about turning a profit, exponential growth, or even efficiency. Rather, Bittersweet is the spark for an idea that Brian remains confident will one day come to fruition; the idea that food, community, and the arts are held in higher regard than exploitative business practices and salaries. “It does not have to be Bittersweet Farm, or even in this part of the country. I just want to see value in what we are doing,” says Brian, as we polish off breakfast and head for morning chores.
Later that morning, we stand idly for a few minutes in the high tunnel that holds Bittersweet’s tractor and hay. This week, the high tunnel has a new occupant. Her name is Pearl, a 21-year-old workhorse who died suddenly in early January. Around the same time, the tractor’s clutch went, leaving the Bennetts with no way to move Pearl. It is one of many dilemmas that Bittersweet is facing. They are all daunting, but none can be fixed immediately, so Brian keeps moving.
He explains to me how a hay baler works after we look longingly at the tractor, hoping it might spring to life. Brian explains: “A smart business man would take out a loan and get a hay baling machine that did everything. It would rake it, bale it, and stack it on the wagon. Just one person could bale all our hay for the year.” But, following up, he says that would defeat the point. Hay baling is about community, not just getting the job done:
“You have one person driving, a few on the wagon stacking – it becomes fun, and the baler is moving slow enough that everyone can talk and rotate jobs. It is a time to bond, and to enjoy what you’re doing.”
In that statement is the everyday resistance that Bittersweet Farm so dutifully puts forth. Their operation is in direct contrast to a system of bankers, businessmen, tech experts, and future-focused people. That system tells Brian every day that what he is doing now could be done more efficiently, faster, with less labor and on a larger scale. But bigger, better, and more efficient also means more strain on topsoil, more carbon emission, more fertilizer, and less community.
Instead of one person working all day, Brian envisions three or four people working half a day, and spending the rest of the time creating: creating furniture, music, paintings, sculpture, literature – anything that people enjoy. Brian and Ann both have arts degrees and strongly support local arts. Later this spring, a drawing class will use the farm for inspiration. There is inspiration everywhere at Bittersweet Farm, from the outer bounds of the property to the kitchen. Coyotes howl in the night, vast stretches of woods creak, and a chorus of livestock sounds off at the late arrival of their morning meal.
When Brian looks out over this, he sees a new kind of living that he calls CSAA: community supported arts and agriculture. It is a place where intentional people could live, farm, and create art, all on the same 100 acres: “These 100 acres could easily support twelve people, if not many more.” He sees dormitory style living, or even individual tiny houses dotting the horizon, wood smoke signaling that everyone was up and moving. The current house would be a central space for cooking, cleaning, and showering.
Noticeably absent from this vision is rent, utilities, land usage fees or anything else of that nature. There is not a lot of money to be made living this vision, and that is part of why Brian loves the idea so much. If there is a place to live, wood to heat, meat, vegetables, milk, eggs, and water, how much money is really required to live?
An added benefit is that with more people the need for carbon intensive practices like using motorized tools decreases. That paired with the reduction of food transport costs to zero, and the carbon footprint of Brian’s dream looks dwarfish in comparison to the average American. The problem, as he’ll admit readily, is getting people to the farm to understand why it is all so important.
Education on the farm takes different forms, but all of them go against the grain of any education that students receive in upstate New York. The Beta Theta Phi fraternity does their volunteer work at Bittersweet, giving young men exposure to the tough job of working with animals and physical labor, but also the rewards, like home-cooked venison stew and a wood stove to warm up from the biting wind. Education also takes the form of a CBL (community based learning) class at St. Lawrence, where a group of students come out every Sunday afternoon to work and learn from the Bennetts.
Then there are volunteers who hear by word of mouth, an e-mail blast by Ann, or just curious folk who see pictures of baby farm animals and cannot help but come for a visit. While it can slow down work, Brian and Ann love all the visitors. When students are getting chores done, relaxing with young animals or learning about the basics of the farm, you can feel the jovialness emanating from them. It is infectious, even in ten-degree weather on a February afternoon.
On that afternoon, 15 students, including 13 freshmen, arrive at the farm for the first time. Most are here to see the newborns, but the hope is that Brian can hook at least one into coming out regularly. If not, Brian has their attention for at least one afternoon. He’ll take it. Instead of students focusing on their economics exam, the PR firm they will work for after college, or an exam based on crammed thoughts and memorization, these students will see where their food comes from. This is active resistance, albeit in a cuter, gentler form.
Today these students meet 25 Tamworth piglets from three mothers, and eight newborn lambs. None are more than a week old. There are gasps and perhaps a few tears at the fragility and innocence of the little ones – selfies are taken and group shots organized throughout the afternoon. Brian doesn’t understand it, but encourages “as many photos as you’d like, share them, use them, whatever you want do.” While he may not be up on the latest technology, he does understand it is the best way to get word out to the larger community.
While they cuddle lambs with names like Honey, Nugget, and Bailey, the students learn about their breed, how to take care of them, and what the farm uses them for. Some are surprised that all of them will end up as food some day, but most take the news in stride. Some joke about vegetarianism, while others inquire about the butchering process and more. Brian happily answers it all without missing a beat: “I have no problem killing an animal and eating it,” he tells them, but how that animal lived its life is as important to him as anything.
The core lesson from the afternoon is not that newborn lambs are excellent companions in Facebook profile pictures. While that gets the word out, the real mission is for these 15 students to understand that pork, beef, chickens, and lamb are all living and emotional beings before they are stocked on supermarket shelves. It is the exact opposite of what Perdue, Tyson, or others might want you to think. Chicken is not a pink slab of meat wrapped in cellophane and grown in a factory. It is a muscle cut off of a living creature that deserves to be nurtured, cared for, and allowed to roam free during its lifetime. Pigs are highly intelligent, surprisingly friendly companions who need love and attention.
If those students walk away with a better understanding of that then when they arrive, Brian can smile. “If one of these students goes off and works on a farm or starts their own farm after being here, that’s amazing,” he affirms, although he does point out, as does to every student who visits, that there are 112 acres of prime soil right here in Heuvelton, New York.
Revolutions and resistance movements evoke images of boycotts, contentious meetings with elected officials, strikes, and marching through the streets. These are, to be clear, vital tools of democracy and civil society that have moved our country in the right direction when our government and economy would not. That being said, every day cannot be a march, a strike, or the occupation of a senator’s office. On the average day, people go to work, do their job, and provide for their family. However, what would it look like if the average day were an exercise in resistance and in fighting against overwhelming opposition? What if there were a way of living outside of our current capitalist, growth-based context, and surviving, while educating the public? It would look a lot like Bittersweet Farm.
Surviving outside that context is no simple task, but the world has knocked the Bennetts down enough times that simple tasks would seem too easy. “Birthing piglets in negative 30 degrees is hard work – it is just brutal. But if a community is there, rotating and helping, it is an opportunity to appreciate it as a beautiful life process”.
Fusing work and appreciation for life, not the exploitation of it? Resistance. Putting more effort into community than efficiency? Resistance. Teaching young people things that the powerful would prefer they ignore? Well, in the words of Brian Bennett, “that is just amazing.”