Like many Maine farmers, Ben Dearnley has a job off his farm. His is what the British call a busman’s holiday – when he’s not working his leased land in Bowdoinham, he runs the organic gardening program at Spurwink Services’ school in Chelsea.

The year-round program serves eight classrooms of children aged 5 to 19, all of whom have behavioral, emotional and developmental challenges and complex trauma issues. We called him up to talk about planting seeds with special needs children, balancing that work with farming in Bowdoinham and how he traded in a cubicle job in Augusta for the life of a farmer.

GETTING THERE FROM HERE: Dearnley worked for two years for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in the toxics and hazardous waste program, assisting companies in finding greener chemicals to use and streamline their processes of dealing with hazardous waste. But “I didn’t feel like I was making any headway,” he said.

He realized how passionate he was about renewable energy, though, so around 2004 he reached out to the Solar Living Institute in Northern California. Did they need an intern? They did. “So I just decided to quit,” he said. “I drove across country by myself.” In his diesel Jetta, running on vegetable oil. The internship introduced him to natural building and to another gig doing straw bale construction. He also joined in a campaign to ban the planting of genetically modified seed in Mendocino County (it worked).

The pieces started to come together for Dearnley; he wanted a work life spent primarily outside, a homestead where he could grow organically – in case things went south with industrial food production – and he wanted to be back in Maine.

FIRST STOP: He started his new farming life at Wolf Pine Farm in Alfred, where he was introduced to the community supported agriculture (CSA) model that he’s taken as his own. “We pulled off feeding 320 families,” he said. “That was a great experience. But I was like, ‘I need to learn more.’ ” Next up, he experimented with logging, and later logging and farming with draft horses. While apprenticing at a farm in Jefferson he ran his first CSA.


LIFE AT LIFE FORCE: Since 2007 he has been leasing Life Force Farm from George Christopher, who is well known for his willingness to help young farmers find land. While the address is Bowdoinham, it’s not quite the “salad bowl” soil the farms adjacent to Merrymeeting Bay are known for. “I have four different soil types,” he explained. “It’s not like down on the bay where they have the best soil in the world.”

From records, he knew someone had once grown beans and corn there to be canned in Lewiston. But “it had been decades,” Dearnley said. He plowed every field, put up two large high tunnels and turned the basement into a functioning root cellar. “It has come a long way in the last eight years.”

EXTROVERT: He built a base of 80 CSA customers fairly quickly. But he also discovered something about himself. “I love farming, but I am kind of extroverted and being isolated on a farm all day long just wasn’t my style.” He signed up to substitute teach, and started picking up shifts. When calls came for subbing with special needs children, he found that he liked the challenge. From there, he landed the job at Spurwink’s Chelsea campus (the nonprofit has five other special education schools in Maine).

CHELSEA MORNINGS: To accommodate his schedule at the Chelsea school, Dearnley turned his CSA at Life Force into a fall/winter share, giving him more time to focus on things like the school’s summer program for older students, who are paid for their work. He helped build a greenhouse in the gardens and wrote a couple of successful grant applications (Harvard Pilgrim gave the school $3,300, which promptly went into a very helpful 8-foot-tall deer fence and major soil amendments – 13 yards of compost). “Stuff looks gorgeous,” Dearnley said. “I feel like we really boosted production.” Then the Whole Kids Foundation (part of Whole Foods) contributed another $2,000, which will go into more soil, tools and seeds.

HOME WORK: For most of these children, 90 percent, Dearnley estimates, growing their own food is a completely new concept. They tend to come from traumatic family environments, and many live with guardians now. Some of the kids take their homework (and vegetables) home with them. “I give them some seeds to take home or some plants and they work up a small spot at their house. It’s something that they can take with them as a living skill,” he said. “I hope we’re giving them inspiration to grow food for the rest of their lives.”

ON THE MENU: Raising food taps into that “hardwired” human instinct to take care of ourselves, to survive, he said. And Dearnley and the rest of the staff take it even further, fermenting foods with the children, making pickles, or pizza and bread in the wood-fired oven. Weeding is their least favorite chore. The garden crew might try seed saving, now that the garden is humming along nicely.

Eating the fresh food they’ve grown naturally produces a major spark, but Dearnley wants his students to understand the potential of a seed. “It can take a few years to realize what is in a seed,” he said. “How cool and magical that really is, to see that transformation from seed into something that can nurture you.” For children who knew so little of nurturing in their early home lives, this is the ultimate lesson.


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