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Heuvelton man named top organic farmer

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HEUVELTON – Brian K. Bennett doesn’t hesitate when it comes to sharing his love of organic farming with the north country.

That is why he has been named the Northeast Organic Farmer Association of New York’s 2014 organic farmer of the year. Mr. Bennett will be presented with the award at NOFA’s Winter Conference Jan. 24 to 26 in Saratoga Springs.

As operator, Mr. Bennett produces a variety of vegetables and livestock on Bittersweet Farm, 1249 State Highway 184.

In addition to being a full-time farmer, Mr. Bennett has worked as the Workshop Coordinator for the Local Living Festival and as the Vegetable Specialist for North Country Grown Cooperative.

He and his wife, Anne, helped to establish the Ogdensburg GreenMarket farmers market and both have served on the Canton Farmers Market board of directors.

Mr. Bennett mentors new farmers and teaches hands on sustainability to area students and volunteers from local colleges and universities, St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services, and the Youth Advocacy Program.

“From September to December, we had 19 students from St. Lawrence University working on the farm,” he said. “They come from all over the world – Ethiopia, Brazil and Pakistan.”

Students often experience culture shock when they visit the farm for the first time, he admitted. The grasses grow wild on the front lawn and cows and chickens are free to graze at their leisure. But Mr. Bennett says there is a method to the madness of organic farming.

“Many people often tell me that if I just cleaned up or made it look a certain way that more people might come to the farm,” he said. “But if you mowed, the hummingbirds, the milkweed and the rare pollinators would go away.”

Mr. Bennett, 55, learned the benefits of organic farming

before there was a term for it, and has practiced it long after critics told him it was a passing fad.

He said the greatest challenge in organic farming is overcoming the stigma that it is too much work or too costly.

“The challenge is not insurmountable when it comes to the actual production methods,” Mr. Bennett said. “I remember being called an organic wacko when I first began. But this is something people have been doing for centuries - back when it used to be called just ‘farming.’ People are embracing it, and it is becoming more popular.”

His mother’s family had long standing farming roots in Indiana where he spent summers during high school hoeing miles of corn.

“She disliked farming,” he said. “She always joked with us kids that one of us was going to become a farmer just to spite her. And that ended up being me.”

In college, Mr. Bennett studied plant science but was not happy with the promotion of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

“I was going for a Bachelor’s of Science in Agriculture Science and Technology,” he said. “At that time, it was all about chemicals - high nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides.”

But the costs were of these chemicals were too much for him.

“I learned that nitrogen is nitrogen,” he said. “I found out that, at the time, I could spend $90 a ton for synthetic nitrogen or I could just go down to my local dairy farm and ask for manure for free.”

He soon found that growing produce and raising livestock naturally was healthier option, too.

In 1985, he purchased his first farm with his wife where they farmed part-time using all organic methods. In 1999 they moved to the St. Lawrence River Valley. Bittersweet farm is certified organic with NOFA-NY Certified Organic LLC.

Diversity, he says, is key when it comes to organic, small-time farming.

“I would rather have 1,000 families each raising 10 cows on my road instead of having one, 10,000-cow farm,” Mr. Bennett said. “If the cows get hoof and mouth disease, the whole thing shuts down and wipes them out. But with a collection of small farms, another farm can survive because the cows may have slightly different genetics.”

But organic farming is not without its challenges.

“It’s not all roses without the thorns,” he said. “You trip, you fall, and things get broken. You make mistakes and you learn from them. But when you fail on a small farm, it’s okay. Other farmers are known to pick each other up when that happens. You can’t get help from the big guys.”

Organic farming is about being connected to what Mr. Bennett refers to as the “life force” of the farm.

“This is not about going back to Amish lifestyle,” he said. “It’s about sharing and connecting. Nothing compares to when you try a fresh heirloom tomato for

before there was a term for it, and has practiced it long after critics told him it was a passing fad.

He said the greatest challenge in organic farming is overcoming the stigma that it is too much work or too costly.

“The challenge is not insurmountable when it comes to the actual production methods,” Mr. Bennett said. “I remember being called an organic wacko when I first began. But this is something people have been doing for centuries - back when it used to be called just ‘farming.’ People are embracing it, and it is becoming more popular.”

His mother’s family had long standing farming roots in Indiana where he spent summers during high school hoeing miles of corn.

“She disliked farming,” he said. “She always joked with us kids that one of us was going to become a farmer just to spite her. And that ended up being me.”

In college, Mr. Bennett studied plant science but was not happy with the promotion of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

“I was going for a Bachelor’s of Science in Agriculture Science and Technology,” he said. “At that time, it was all about chemicals - high nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides.”

But the costs were of these chemicals were too much for him.

“I learned that nitrogen is nitrogen,” he said. “I found out that, at the time, I could spend $90 a ton for synthetic nitrogen or I could just go down to my local dairy farm and ask for manure for free.”

He soon found that growing produce and raising livestock naturally was healthier option, too.

In 1985, he purchased his first farm with his wife where they farmed part-time using all organic methods. In 1999 they moved to the St. Lawrence River Valley. Bittersweet farm is certified organic with NOFA-NY Certified Organic LLC.

Diversity, he says, is key when it comes to organic, small-time farming.

“I would rather have 1,000 families each raising 10 cows on my road instead of having one, 10,000-cow farm,” Mr. Bennett said. “If the cows get hoof and mouth disease, the whole thing shuts down and wipes them out. But with a collection of small farms, another farm can survive because the cows may have slightly different genetics.”

But organic farming is not without its challenges.

“It’s not all roses without the thorns,” he said. “You trip, you fall, and things get broken. You make mistakes and you learn from them. But when you fail on a small farm, it’s okay. Other farmers are known to pick each other up when that happens. You can’t get help from the big guys.”

Organic farming is about being connected to what Mr. Bennett refers to as the “life force” of the farm.

“This is not about going back to Amish lifestyle,” he said. “It’s about sharing and connecting. Nothing compares to when you try a fresh heirloom tomato for the first time.”

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