Ben Whatley is the tall young man who sometimes slips away from his booth at the Brunswick Winter Market to play a little bluegrass in the corner. He grew up in Topsham with parents who had given up farming for practical reasons. As a young adult, Whatley had the idea that he’d become a lawyer. Then he spent some time on a working farm and the die was cast. We talked with him about drought, the lesson he learned from a bad year in cantaloupe and how his brother’s wedding opened up new possibilities for Whatley Farm.

THE GRADUATE: After college, Whatley decided to try out an internship at Broadturn Farm in Scarborough before applying to law school. Broadturn was a fledgling business then. “I got introduced to a lot of things there and got to experience it while they were still blurring the lines between their homestead and their business.” He made the rounds of law schools. But the law started to seem less appealing, especially “when I realized that I was going to have to get through law school.”

APPLYING HIMSELF: After another internship, at a market garden farm in North Carolina, Whatley broached the subject of starting a farm on his parents’ property in Topsham. Or restarting it; the family has farming in their blood. His father grew up on a farm in Auburn, and when his parents bought their land in Topsham in the 1980s, they had 1,000 laying hens and some crops. But those were the days of $1 a dozen eggs and “organic was a dirty word,” and once they started having kids, they decided to do something more practical. His father started Morningstar Stone and Tile, a masonry business, today a thriving venture. But both he and his wife work with their son, focusing on the livestock at Whatley Farm. “He moonlights as a farmer.”

MELON MELANCHOLY: In the Brunswick-Topsham area, Whatley has a reputation for growing a fine melon. But thanks to drought conditions in the midcoast, his customers will have to turn elsewhere this year (try Fairwinds for one). None of the melons made it; the ground was too dry for them to get established enough to produce fruit. “That was one of the things that we had that was planted on some unirrigated ground. Usually we have gotten away with planting there. We were kind of gambling on that. And lost.”

Ben Whatley operates Whatley Farm, an organic farm in Topsham that he started with his parents five years ago. Staff photo by Derek Davis

WATER WORLD: What recourse do you have, as a farmer with land that isn’t irrigated in a summer this hot and dry? Whatley has a 600-gallon water tank on a trailer, used primarily during transplanting. But it’s not practical to take it out and spray, say, young melon plants that aren’t thriving. “To cover an acre with an inch of water would take like thousands of gallons. You really need to have an irrigation system.” But even that isn’t a perfect fix. “It is really no substitute for a good rain.”

LESSONS LEARNED: Whatley said he’s got a new perspective after this summer. That unirrigated field is on leased land, eight miles from Whatley Farm, and Whatley doesn’t plan to renew the lease. He wants to focus on the home base, which is 50 acres, most of it in woods with four acres cleared for field crops. “I’m going to focus more on investing in irrigation on our place. I think we’re going to be able to grow more on less land.”

WEDDING VOWS: The other eye opener was his brother’s wedding in July. The family dug in hard to clean up the farm – including moving some of the equipment from his father’s masonry and stone business – so the young man could marry on the farm. “It showed me we can clean this place up and make it safe for people to visit.” And to participate in farm life, whether by staying in the yurt Whatley is thinking of erecting or attending a community event. “I’m trying to find a way to (make) part of the business be experiences too, and not just products.” The next step is to get more events on the schedule; already a butchery workshop – breaking down a half a pig – is slated for Oct. 1 (visit whatleyfarm.com for more information on that closer to that date).

THE TROPICS: He’s also working on new crops, including ginger root, lemongrass and turmeric. This last one, turmeric, is a red variety from Hawaii. “We just started doing that, and we’ll have it here for the next month or two. It has been really fun. I want to have more tropical plants in the greenhouses.” The greenhouses are new, too, thanks to a $25,000 grant from Farms for the Future and a low-interest loan, and the pair of them add up to about a quarter acre. “We haven’t really realized the potential of them yet, but I am going to be focusing on that a little more next year. I do like being able to just walk out the door and be in the greenhouse.”

TRANSITION TIME: Whatley has been spending less time at farmers markets this year. He’s had more management duties on the farm, having lost some employees, including a few who went off to start farms of their own (Leaf & Caul in Washington, which is focusing on pork, and Good Dirt Farm up the road in Bowdoinham). “I just found I really need to be here every day.” He’s content to be digging deeper into what the farm has already got. “I want to keep it beautiful and really human-scaled.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

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