HEUVELTON — When the Bennett family began cultivating a patchwork of mixed-type land on Route 184 two decades ago, the dream of providing “good food for all people” was seeded.
“You start with the soil, then you work your way out from there to the community,” Ann Bennett said of the small-scale, sustainable farming model applied at her family’s Bittersweet Farm. “That’s what we’re all about.”
The Bennett team — Ann, her husband Brian and their daughter Catherine — manage about 112 acres, certified organic through the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York and located about 8 miles southwest of the village of Heuvelton center.
With portions of pasture, mixed forest, wetlands, hay fields, permaculture gardens and raised bed gardens, the farm grows vegetables and tree fruits, prepares greenhouse transplants and raises Scottish Angus and Highland cattle, heritage breed turkeys and chickens, St. Croix sheep and Tamworth hogs. Produce, eggs, jams, jellies and herbs are sold at the Canton Farmers’ Market, local shops and wholesale at the farm.
Since Ann and Brian Bennett moved to their Heuvelton lot in 1999, Brian said Bittersweet Farm has fostered apprenticeships, work for local students and community involvement. Last fall, the Bennetts launched a new involvement program that has now been awarded nearly $3,000 in grant funding to support the program’s expansion.
Developed by Catherine and Ann as a pilot program, Bittersweet’s Weekend WorkShare is designed as a non-monetary community-supported agriculture system.
Unlike traditional CSA farm shares that distribute local products to members in exchange for a seasonal fee — which can cost hundreds of dollars — the Weekend WorkShare does not charge members, “taking away a barrier” for single parents and low-income families, Ann said. Instead, members receive the equivalent of $15 per hour in food in exchange for committing to a weekly one- to two-hour time slot to work on the farm.
“They are providing their sweat equity,” Ann Bennett said. “And we’re providing the land, the seed, the knowledge and the bounty of the harvest. We consider our members to be members of the whole farm and vital to our functioning. They’re just as important as anybody else.”
After the WorkShare pilot program gained traction with interested community members, Ann said, the Bittersweet Farm communication lines became “inundated” with requests for WorkShare time slots, so Catherine began the grant application process, hoping to build the farm’s capacity to host WorkShare members any day of the week.
Awarded by the San Francisco-based FruitGuys Community Fund, a $2,775 grant will be used to improve the Weekend WorkShare program with the purchase of tools, boots and gloves for WorkShare members and expand growing areas for berries, herbs, vegetables and flowers.
Of the 15 small-scale farms from around the country selected as the nonprofit’s eighth group of grant recipients, Bittersweet Farm is the only grantee in New York.
The FruitGuys Community Fund expedited its annual funding timeline this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, issuing full monetary awards in one installment, instead of two.
“Small American farms are key to a healthy food system, economic self-sufficiency, sustainability and food access, and they need support more than ever to continue to feed our communities and keep us healthy,” Chris Mittelstaedt said.
Mr. Mittelstaedt, project director for The FruitGuys Community Fund, added that the organization is “grateful that none of the selected farms foresaw any additional challenges to completing their sustainability projects this year due to the effects of COVID-19.”
In fact, Bittersweet Farm has already heard from several St. Lawrence County residents in the last two months, Ann said, attributing the interest to people longing for safe outdoor activities. She added that an outdoor handwashing station and a supply of masks and hand sanitizer have prepared the farm to host workers during the public health crisis.
Those interested in learning more about Bittersweet Farm or becoming a WorkShare member are asked to contact the Bennetts at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 315-344-0443.
Through the evolving WorkShare, Brian said, the Bennetts’ share their love of teaching and often learn from working members, all in an effort to enrich connections to land, food and community.
And harvest at Bittersweet Farm, in stark contrast to the fast-tracked operations of corporate farming and food systems, is a slow return, Catherine said.
“We put so much emphasis on production in a capitalist culture, but ‘productive’ can mean so many things,” Catherine said. “Everything about the WorkShare, in my mind, is part of a long-term goal. Nothing about organics is short-term.”
As a way to “celebrate food and community,” she continued, Bittersweet’s WorkShare champions the idea that hands-to-earth experiences and direct participation in food production are worth more than any dollar figure.
Walking from the farm’s solarium, a small glass greenhouse exploding with seedling greenery, hanging baskets and mushroom cultures, Brian made his way to one of the farm’s pastures as he gave the Times a tour of Bittersweet this week. He stood by four calves soaking in Wednesday’s sun, pausing with outstretched arms and nearly hugging the sky.
“The sun, the rain, connected to the soil,” he said, “creates the real wealth.”