On Saturday, July 21st, I met with Ben Chadwell, Thornbury Farm intern, for an inside look at sustainable agriculture.
Ben attends West Chester University for liberal studies, biology, Spanish, and economics. His optimism, energy, and intelligence give me high hopes for a renewable future. We walked the grounds with Farm Manager Chris Knoblauch, who helped me understand Thornbury’s role in the West Chester community.
As we walked the perimeter, it became clear that for Ben, working at Thornbury is more than just a resume-booster. Ben’s background in biology helps him analyze the toll our commercial agriculture system is taking on our environment, while his interest in philosophy helps him to realize its affect on our minds and bodies.
“Environmental issues have always been very near to my heart,” Ben said. “People who choose to grow food on small farms… are taking action to change the way we produce food…” Ben described our current monoculture methods of farming. As we spoke in the open-air and sunshine, I imagined a very different farm, hundreds of miles away, where bulky tractors sprayed pesticide across countless rows of crops, while chickens sat crammed, feather-to-feather, in a large warehouse, with clipped beaks and wings.
I thought about the long-term consequences of such methods: the contamination our land and water, and the production of foods that make us sick. “When we eat and drink, we are absorbing the world into our bodies. The land is our bodies,” said Ben. Under our current system, the soil will soon be too toxic to produce food, the water too toxic to irrigate it, and we will be too weak or sick to work in the fields.
After college, Ben wants to continue his learning at Sustainable Harvest International (SHI), a non-profit organization, based in Central America, which “supports farmers and the environment by tackling serious issues like hunger and deforestation.” SHI is focused on reducing slash-and-burn agriculture, a method of deforestation that is not sustainable, because without life-supporting trees, the land becomes barren and will not grow crops. At the same time, SHI seeks to address the hunger problem by adopting sustainable methods of agriculture – using every space, resource, and person to achieve a harvest that can provide for everyone. “Waste is the product of bad design, and bad design can be changed,” Ben explains.
He went on to describe a bio-gas digester, which sounds really technical, “but really, it’s like an underground composter.” The design is fairly simple. A chute at the surface carries food waste into an underground chamber. As food waste sits, the bacteria present begin metabolizing the food, which produces methane gas. The gas rises into a separate holding chamber, which can be controlled by a release valve and, Ben explains, “can be used for cooking!” Designs like the biogas digester show that, with careful planning, our method of food production can come full circle: from farm to table, and back again.
Thornbury is probably best known for its community-sustained agriculture program (CSA), through which members buy shares at the beginning of the grow season to help pay for the farm’s operation. In return, members can come to the farm’s on-site market and choose eight to ten items weekly or bi-weekly during the grow season. “[One item] is a big bunch of kale, a few tomatoes, a case of strawberries, or a watermelon,” Chris explains. “It adds up to a lot of food.” Local restaurants like Shoo Mama’s Farm Fresh Café and the Roots Café will buy several shares to fill their produce needs each week during the grow season.
You don’t have to buy a share to get your fresh produce at Thornbury. The market is open to the public on Thursdays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Available products include seasonal, fresh produce grown in the Thornbury’s fields, plus a plethora of other locally-sourced goodies, including preserves, canned goods, chutney, spices, honey, farm-fresh eggs from Thornbury’s chickens, local milk, goat cheeses, and breads. Thornbury’s Pick-Your-Own herb garden is another fun, interactive feature that allows patrons to take part in the harvest.
Heirloom seeds and plants are also available at the Thornbury market. “The average plate of food travels 1,500 miles to get to you,” Ben explains. But heirlooms “have evolved to fit specific regions.” A region-specific crop means less need for chemical growing methods, a more bountiful harvest, and a tastier product.
Thornbury takes any chance it can to cut the chemicals. “We are non-certified organic,” Ben explains. Thornbury’s use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides is next-to-none. “When we do [use chemicals], we purchase as much of the organic, non-toxic varieties as we can afford…. Our customers know they are paying for produce untainted by the chemicals that have been proven to cause illness.”
Thornbury is increasing community involvement with upcoming events. How-to canning, bread baking, cooking, as well as an on-site documentary series will leave patrons’ brain and bellies full. Haunted tours are another popular attraction, where Thornbury reveals its rich history, and Battle of Brandywine roots. A farm-fresh pizza session for kids, where children will wood-fire their own pizzas in Thornbury’s on-site oven, will end with setting several garden-benefiting insects, like ladybugs, free in the fields. Year-round volunteers are also accepted at Thornbury, for anyone who wants to get involved in the sustainable movement, brush up on gardening skills, or just enjoys being outside.
Observing the type of community sustainable farming creates left me feeling energized and hopeful. “We must create a vision together,” says Ben. I saw the small-scale farm at work, while patrons pleasantly shopped the market for fresh produce. It’s about more than just growing plants to be eaten. It’s about forming relationships with your food, nature, yourself, and the people in your community. “I learn so much every time I work,” Ben says. “And it’s really rewarding to see the end product.”