— From the pages of FLL Issue #26 • Feature and Photography by David Schrott
It’s a magnificent overcast autumn day and my small red Ford Ranger hums northwest on 283. Laying flat on the bed of my truck is a small brown suitcase packed with Kodak film, a light meter, and a medium format camera. Grain. Texture. Depth. And sometimes, even color. Oh, how I love film. There’s a magnificent depth to the remaining Kodak films that is just oh so beautiful; today, I have the perfect subject. The clouds begin to part as I exit the highway and warm, golden sun soaks the landscape. I came expecting to shoot mostly black and white portraits, but now as the clouds recede and the sun splashes, vibrant greens and yellows burst from the surrounding fields.
Color it is.
I park my truck and in the distance I see Ben walking through his field with his daughter perched on his shoulders. At first glance the fields he farms look a bit overgrown. There’s lots of tall grass; little of this looks like the perfectly manicured Amish fields that dot much of the Lancaster County landscape, but that is intentional and will be explained to me later. Ben and his three-year-old daughter, Ursa Honey, head out of the fields to meet me at my truck. Ben greets me, barefoot, while Ursa holds his leg and hides behind him.
The field is muddy and the soft, loamy soil squishes between Ben’s toes as we walk. I ask him why he farms barefoot and he stops to explain. “I like to go barefoot in the spring and summer at least or any reasonably warm day. Most wonderful way to be. It also keeps you tough.” He reaches back down and continues cutting up watermelon radishes with a kitchen knife whose handle was custom made for him by Katie Gruber, a Central Market colleague. A few minutes later he lops a radish in half, exposing its pink center. Its color is gorgeous against the light blue evening sky.
Benjamin DeGaetano is the owner and proprietor of Sweet Annie Produce in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He sells a majority of his vegetables at Lancaster’s Central Market. He’s been farming for five years now and his holistic view of his connection to Lancaster’s farm culture, as well as a robust understanding of what it means to be a farmer, bleeds through in every conversation. He explains, “I grow vegetables, and as many different and interesting ones as possible. My favorite thing to grow varies year to year. This year it was peppers; last year it was leeks and celeriac. Carrots have always been close to my heart and an anchor of my income. No matter what though, I raise open pollinated varieties with deep agricultural heritage. Non-GMO seeds are what I want growing in my field—pure nature.”
The dark loamy soil of Lancaster County has provided an incredible dearth of vegetable excellence over the last two hundred and fifty plus years. Ben absolutely loves working this precious, even sacred, ground. He farms four to five acres per season, while the other four-and-a-half acres lay fallow for alfalfa or other vegetables. The land here “has been heavily cultivated for the past two hundred fifty years,” he explains, “so I am letting grasses and weeds grow up on parts of the field I don’t immediately need.” His gentle care of his fields is a magnificent exercise in honoring the past as well as preparing the soil for future generations of farmers: “I want to let the natural and native plants grow and build the soil into what it is, to express itself. I want to find out what my soil is, and then raise things on it based on that knowledge, rather than whipping the land into submission and compliance.”
Back in the field I watch Ben work as he swiftly harvests his radishes. He moves smooth and quickly, maneuvering through the rows of vegetables and the weeds that surround them. I ask him why he allows the weeds to grow. The answer isn’t all that surprising when one considers the thought behind it. “Letting weeds grow around my vegetables creates a better tasting and denser vegetable by toughening up the crop. This is not totally necessary but I think it also creates a better expression of my field. When a plant is grown in duress, it necessarily becomes a stronger plant to be able to compete with every other plant. A stronger plant is more nutrient dense (which is better for the one consuming it) and usually tastes better too.” Opposition breeds strength, and, in this case, additional nutrition and flavor.
His farming techniques are careful and thoughtful. Unlike so much of today’s industry farming, each and every process has meaning and a maximized benefit in mind. Inside of the American machine in the last hundred years, so much of the art of farming has been lost. Farming has become industry; the gears of its engine spew out produce, poultry, dairy, and beef like Detroit churned out cars and Pittsburgh poured out steel. But there are a faithful few. They realize the nature of their calling to be farmers and they do so with great love, patience, and care.
“I see my work as doing what people on the earth have done since people have existed,” Ben says. “It’s really simple, but I’m also trying to do some crazy refined stuff. I try to make exclusive stuff available by creating it, like turnip greens that have never seen the light of day. I am trying to get people to think about vegetables as filling a more dominant role on our plates and palates.”
Like so many of us who love to call Lancaster home, Ben feels the same way. “I feel like my being in Lancaster is a great gift. The geology is incredible—glacial silt! I feel so good to be a farmer in the agricultural tradition of humanity (not just Lancaster). I also feel great standholding at Lancaster Central Market, at a place where farmers have come for the past 300 years to make a living,” he says. “Good soil makes good roots and that’s the best place to be standing.”
About 100 miles west of Lancaster, in beautiful Burnt Cabins, Pennsylvania, Dylan Deimler and Kellie Gouda operate Waldsfeld Produce. Together, they focus on raising heirloom vegetables without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides and use certified organic seed. In addition to growing vegetables, they also keep a small herd of steers, goats, and chickens that are raised without growth hormones and on pasture.
David eschews synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in favor of natural methods. Raising small fruits and vegetables and free-range chickens for eggs (fed non-GMO feed), he sells at his Dietz Produce stand at York’s Central Market House. After graduating from Millersville University in 1995, David had spent several years as a social studies teacher before answering the call of the land and farming a slice of his family’s farm.