No Small Potatoes: Ben Dearnley '00

To Ben Dearnley, seeds are “cool and magical.” He passes that fascination on to kids at Spurwink School in Chelsea, Maine. The students, who have emotional and behavioral disabilities, see the entire process of growing food, from calculating how many seeds to buy to weeding and harvesting crops. They bring food home to their families, nearly all low-income.

Ben Dearnley '00Dearnley melds two careers— farming and teaching. He makes things grow: healthful crops, strong adults and a program that changes lives.

At Life Force Farm, Ben supplies 30 families with produce through community supported agriculture, donating surplus vegetables to food pantries. Dining out in Maine, you might be enjoying greens or potatoes grown on his farm.

“I like feeding people and myself independently. Having control over my own food is pretty satisfying,” Ben says.

“I typically grow close to 20,000 pounds of food a year on one and a half acres. It’s amazing to me that all the seeds it takes to grow that food would fit in a box I can hold in my hand.” He manages five acres, but rotates crops constantly—“a fun puzzle game.”

Dearnley says “biological high nutrition farming” manages soil to reduce pests and provide the most nutrients and trace. From his 1890s farmhouse, Ben grows crops in the field and heated tunnels, cuts firewood, taps maple trees and works the land using a biodiesel-fueled tractor.

At Spurwink, many of the school’s students suffer from anxiety disorders, substance abuse, psychotic episodes, depression, and other conditions. Teaching science and math, the former environmental science major finds that hands-on gardening complements academics and nurturing the kids’ potential.

Dearnley likes teaching sustainable skills, and boosting self-esteem. Older students receive minimum wage working in the school’s garden. “It’s a big deal to them,” he says. “They take home a paycheck and fresh vegetables.”

By Laurie D. Morrissey