Ben Street is currently in transition from an incubator farm to land of his own. He grows organic vegetables, pastured chickens & eggs in North Carolina's Elma Lomax Farm, where he's benefited from a network of farmers & local food enthusiasts. In the following interview, Ben discusses his initial inspiration, his tipping point, and the joy and life purpose that working the land can bring.
Tell us about your project, what do you do?
I grow USDA Certified Organic produce, raise pastured laying hens on non-GMO feed, and dabble in microgreen and gourmet mushroom production. I am entering my third season farming at the Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm in Concord, NC, which is a farmer-raining program for people who want to make a career in agriculture. Elma Lomax is a 33 acre certified organic farm that charges yearly dues in exchange for land access, tractor, post-harvest handling facility, walk-in cooler, greenhouse, high-tunnel, ice-machine, and a myriad of other tools. It’s also an amazing place for networking, as there is a lot of community support behind the program.
In May of 2015, I met a local couple at a fundraising event for the Lomax Farm who presented me with the opportunity of a lifetime: sixty-six beautiful acres of prime farm land on the Rocky River, dubbed "the Riverbend Estates,” including a house to live in. I moved February 2016 and have since cleared about seven acres for agricultural production. I plan on taking this year to get a few rotations of cover crops and transfer my vegetable production from the Lomax Farm to this property for the 2018 season.
In order to really be set up at Riverbend, I will need to more infrastructure to successfully transfer my operation. Specifically, I will need to create a system for post-harvest handling and vegetable storage. While I’ve already found a walk-in cooler, I need to build a post-harvesting system from scratch. My plan is to build a roof over the house patio, along with a washing table, greens bubbler, greens spinner, a drying table, and a packing table, all out of salvaged materials.
How did you get into this business? What introduced you to and made you passionate about what you do?
In my youth I was very active, playing baseball and soccer, and wrestling and lifting weights in high school. After a stint at college and upon entering the workforce, it became evident that exercise alone was no longer sufficient to maintain good health, and I began to delve into research on diet and nutrition. This research led me to conscientious consuming and convinced me to begin buying local and organic whenever possible. Tumbling further down the rabbit hole, my research led me to the difference between organic and modern conventional agricultural practices.
At the time, I was working for a freight forwarding company in Charlotte, and had come to realize that I did not want to spend most of the rest of my waking life sitting at a desk behind a computer screen. One night as I lay in bed contemplating the various directions my life could go, I had the epiphany that I might try organic farming.
Why not? It seemed to align with my interests in health, nutrition, the outdoors. What could be better than spending your days outside in the sunshine, getting dirty and providing one of the fundamentals of life? I was inspired. I began reading everything I could get my hands on about farming, I started eliminating expenses so I could save money, and I started volunteering for a local grower, Joe Rowland of Rowland's Row Family Farm, on the weekends to get some hands-on experience. It was he who introduced me to the Lomax Farm, where he had gotten his start.
I moved into a camper in 2015 to save money and live closer to the Lomax Farm, where I started Street Fare Farm that same year. I spent that season growing in the off-hours of my day job. It was a tough year, with an hour commute to the farm from the office and living in two worlds, one I was trying to get away from and one that, despite my desires, I couldn't immerse myself in completely. My plan was to continue my double-life for one more season and make the leap to farming full-time in 2017. But that year, my plans were put on hold.
In October 2015 my little brother passed away after a long, hard road of drug abuse, recovery, and eventually the relapse that ended his life. This was the tipping point that made me realize that life is far too fragile to spend any more time doing anything that I didn't want to do. The next month, I put in my notice at my job and began farming full-time in 2016.
What are you most excited about right now? What are some of your future goals? : There is so much that I am excited about, I can hardly hold back! First of all, I'm super excited about this coming season, for I have developed a completely new system of production that I'm hoping will enable us to grow three to four times more produce on the same land space as last year! Inspired by the systems of Eliot Coleman, Jean-Martin Fortier, and Curtis Stone, I have standardized my plots and am instituting multiple cropping methods and intensive spacing. It's going to be really hard work, but I believe that hard work breeds success more than anything else. I'm pumped!
I'm also very excited that my eldest niece, Lily, fresh from high school, has decided to join the team for the coming season. It's been great having her around, and with her help, I'm confident that we'll be able to catapult Street Fare Farm to the next level.
My primary goal and focus is to make this endeavor into a sustainable operation. If this business doesn't cover the bills, provide for a balanced lifestyle, increase the health of the farm ecosystem, and become a contributing entity within the community, then there is no way this will last. Once that's been accomplished (and I'm confident that it will), I am really interested in using small-scale sustainable farming as a platform to help people who are struggling in their lives to find greater purpose and realize their potential, as I feel like there is a lot in both the nature of farming and the business of farming that can be helpful to that end. I haven't fleshed it out completely, but that's the direction I am heading in.
What frustrates you most about your work or the current food culture at large? What do you wish to change the most? : What frustrates me most about the current food culture at large is how little value is placed the food we eat. The industrialized agricultural system has been so prominent in our food culture for so long that we, as a society, no longer qualify the food we eat based on the nutritional content but by the best caloric bang for your buck. This mindset, along with the blind trust placed in big food, who are generally more interested in their bottom line than in the health of the consumer, has led to the increase in nutritionally void offerings at the supermarket, which in turn has spurred on the rise of chronic disease, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. The health of the body is directly correlated to the food that we eat, and if there is one thing I wish I could change, it would be that we would place more value in the fundamentals of life: water, food, and shelter. Taking this for granted, we've created a disposable society centered around the value of quantity over quality; I wish people would seek quality as the default.
Any recent moments of optimism? Things you see changing for the better?: Despite my rant above, I am extremely optimistic for the future. You have to be, right? I see a lot of good things happening: people choosing to shop at the farmers market out of a sense of social and environmental responsibility, the boom in the farm-to-table restaurant movement, the fact that the average age of the American farmer is 58 years old while the average age of the farmers-in-training at the Lomax farm lies somewhere in the 30s, and the rise of the chef in popular culture--which in turn is bringing on the rise of the farmer. I'm excited for the future and am actively and intentionally trying to be part of the solution.
Favorite vegetable to eat, grow or wear? : My favorite vegetable to grow is the onion, and if there is a heaven, it smells of sauteing onion, I'm sure of it.
Anything else you want us to know? Anything you want us to help you spread the word about? : It is hard this day and age to find real purpose and meaning through all the minutia we encounter, but if you can stop, take a step back, look at the bigger picture and realize how we are all connected--then you can find purpose in living for the sake of life itself.