Ben Shute

Family Farm Food | August 20, 2013

Ben Shute on Discovering an Unlikely Passion for Farming

At Hearty Roots Community Farm, Ben Shute works from sunrise to sunset to produce only the freshest and healthiest food for the people of New York. Not having grown up on a farm, Ben is a self-taught farmer whose fervent ambition, passion and dedication prove that with time and effort, anyone can pursue his or her goal of being a farmer. These qualities make Ben one of our Farmer Heroes!

Growing up in New York City, Ben never in a million years expected to become a farmer. However, his eagerness to learn led him to become very curious about where the food he ate came from, and how the farming process worked. He figured the best starting place was to gain experience first-hand. While attending Amherst College in Massachusetts, Ben started working on farms up and down the east coast, and at a small vegetable farm nestled in Oregon. Ben thought he would try farming for a few months before moving on to something else. However, in that short amount of time, he realized there was much more for him to learn, and that farming was something about which he was really passionate.

“A family farmer is someone who is farming close to the operation, not some corporate structure. It’s the people whose hands are getting dirty that are the decision maker.”

In practically no time, Ben knew that farming was what he wanted to do with his life, and he began farming on his own. In 2004, he and a friend opened up Hearty Roots Community Farm on rented land in Red Hook, New York. To this day, Ben and the Hearty Roots Community Farm use sustainable practices to produce seasonal vegetables and eggs for communities all over the state. One technique Ben uses to ensure the protection of the natural resources on which his farm depends is “cover-cropping.” Cover crops are planted outside of the traditional growing season and then put back into the soil. For example, Ben plants rye each fall, which helps to hold soil in place during the winter against the forces of wind and water. Come spring, he plows the rye back into the soil, and then plants his vegetables. In addition to preventing soil erosion, cover crops add nitrogen and organic matter to the soil, which in turn improves fertility naturally without the use of chemical fertilizers.

As someone who grew up with virtually zero farming experience, Ben strives to make sure young, determined farmers are granted the same opportunities he was. On the farm, Ben hires a small group of about nine young farmers with a similar background to his. At Hearty Roots, they gain the experience they need to have a farm of their own. Ben even does what he can to help former crew members start their own farms, if and whenever they decide to go in that direction. And helping new farmers is a family matter: In addition to working on the farm, Ben’s wife Lindsey Lusher Shute is the executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition, organizing young farmers around the country and advocating for programs and policies that put new farmers on the land and keep them there.

Ben and the crew at Hearty Roots Community Farm work to create a unique experience for about 550 families in New York through their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. On a weekly basis from June to November, members of the CSA program pick up eggs and vegetables from one of the CSA’s New York pick-up locations, including Clermont, Woodstock, Kingston, Beacon and four New York City locations. Due to Ben’s city roots and connection to a place that doesn’t have the land or vegetable-growing capacity of upstate New York, he wanted to be sure that city dwellers have the same access to good food that rural residents of New York have.

In addition to increasing food security for urban folks, Ben’s purpose for creating the CSA program was to provide his customers with the freshest food for a better value, while also creating a personal connection to the farm for them. Every week, Hearty Roots Farm packs a truck full of eggs and freshly harvested vegetables and takes them to these locations. Having paid a fixed price for the season, CSA members enjoy a wide variety of seasonal vegetables, and get a great value for their food dollar. The CSA model, as opposed to selling at farmers markets, also leaves Ben knowing that he won’t come back from market with any leftover produce, another benefit to the farm.

Photo © Andy Kropa 2010

Photo © Andy Kropa 2010

While not his family by blood, Ben believes that he and the young farmers at Hearty Roots make up a family farm. “A family farmer is someone who is farming close to the operation, not some corporate structure. It’s the people whose hands are getting dirty that are the decision makers,” Ben confidently states. “I don’t think it has to be a Mom and a Dad and the kids working together, there are lots of different family farms you can have. The whole crew, we all stop and share lunch together, we take turns cooking lunch for each other so we can enjoy some of the good food from the farm. We work long hours and spend a lot of time together in the field, and we are lucky that many members of our crew come back from year to year.”

Yet, since Hearty Roots isn’t your typical family farm, Ben did not inherit the land, and, like many new farmers, he found it a struggle to acquire land. Just last year, after farming on rented land for nine seasons, Ben and the Hearty Roots Community Farm purchased land in Clermont, NY, allowing them ownership of 70 acres. Without the restrictions of rented land, a whole new world has been opened up for the future of Hearty Roots. A farmer invests in their land whether rented or owned, but knowing you have control of that land into the future means your investment won’t suddenly be lost if your lease ends. Ben hopes to build more facilities, purchase more equipment, and eventually raise more animals.

Ben is happy with the direction Hearty Roots has grown in. He claims that he could never get bored with so many different kinds of vegetables to plant; every day is different and interesting. While farming is sometimes frustrating due to unpredictable weather, other uncertainties, and loads of work to be done, Ben finds the whole experience of farming extremely rewarding, well worth it, and “a good challenge.” Roots down in upstate New York, Ben and Lindsey are growing both food a whole new generation of farmers.

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