“We found out that when you’re able to sell what you grow at retail prices rather than to wholesale, growing vegetables is actually profitable!…it’s a system that works. It works for everyone.” –Bennett Wilson
Bennett Wilson and Jordan Hall were flying high. They’d built a successful film production business in Brooklyn. Then they decided to start a farm. In Greenpoint.
Why trade the fun of the film world for summers of long hours in the field (or repurposed schoolyard filled with raised planting beds, as the case may be)? Bennett grew up in a gardening-obsessed family in Minnesota. Jordan grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. They missed growing stuff. And they wanted to prove a point.
They’re proving it: You can start a farm on open space in the city, you can do most of the work yourself, you can grow great produce, and you can make money doing it.
We met with Bennett at the farm in the former schoolyard of the now-closed St. Cecelia’s to get the full story behind Tenth Acre Farms.
So Bennet, where are you from? How did you get interested in farming and gardening?
I was born in Wisconsin and raised in Minnesota. My dad grew up on a farm in upstate New York. It was a pretty big farm – about 600 acres, mostly apples, but some livestock too. They sold the farm when he was in high school, and they ended up getting out of farming at that point. My dad went into education. His brother is a journalist.
But my dad always stayed connected to it. We have an apple orchard and a one-acre garden at our house in Minnesota. An acre is a pretty massive garden. I think about it all the time – if only I had an acre in New York City – I could grow so much food.
With an acre, you just have so much space. It was fantastic. We always got sucked into working in the garden all the time. We have a barn on the property that we built out of parts of old abandoned barns that we tore down. My father’s crazy like that.
When I came to New York I found myself missing all that a little bit. My business partner Jordan and I went to college together and were both working in film production – we own a studio. He grew up on a dairy farm and he missed it too. So we started a garden in his backyard. Nice raised beds. We grew a bunch of vegetables and hung out back there. It was nice. You don’t really get that in the city much.
Here at St. Cecelia’s, they had closed the school and were renting out space for all kinds of purposes. We had been filming here a bunch, and we kept looking at this big old schoolyard that wasn’t being used. It was kind of a mess. So we started thinking. We approached the priest who runs things here and we were like, “Hey father, would you mind if we cleaned up that old schoolyard and built some planting beds and made a farm back there?”
He was like, “Huh? Really? Hmmm.” At first he wasn’t sure, so we drew it all up for him and assured him we weren’t going to make a mess of it, and he came around. We pay ten percent of what we make to the church in rent, which is kind of appropriate if you think of the old practice of tithing.
So once we had an agreement, Jordan and I invested a bunch of our own money to buy all the supplies, soil, and wood for the beds, and we built it all in about six days.
It was pretty late in the year when we decided to actually go for it and do this. It was April of 2009 when we get started, and we were like, “Crap. We need to make some decisions that should have been made months ago, right now.”
We had to build a garden, and we had to be able to make money on it. The studio business was going really well, and it got to a point where we realized that we weren’t going to have to work for anyone else. The studio is still up and running, and Jordan and I each own half of it. Movies are great and it’s fun, but it’s not really helping anybody. At some point I realized I was just entertaining people. I was putting all this effort into entertaining. I want to do something…better. Something with more of an impact.
At the same time, I knew we’d need to eat and pay rent. My wife likes to go out to dinner and likes to have vacations, and so do I. We decided to be realistic about it. To figure out whether we could make it work financially – whether we could make a business out of it. We did the research and we did the numbers and it looked like we could make it work, so we decided to invest in it.
It’s been a change, and a challenge. All season long we get up early and get home late. You don’t really get days off. If work needs to be done, you gotta do the work. It can’t wait when you’re growing plants.
We found out that when you’re able to sell what you grow at retail prices rather than to wholesale, growing vegetables is actually profitable! When you take out all the middlemen and all the profit is there for the farmer themselves, and you know everyone you’re selling it to and they know you and your food is fresher than anything else out there, it’s a system that works. It works for everyone.
How much did your background with helping out with gardening at home help you?
Surprisingly little. I thought I knew more than I did. But I realized that back home, the adults were doing most of the gardening and the kids just helped. They’d been doing it for so long that I don’t think it really occurred to them to actually teach us about exactly what we were doing and why we were doing it. So I had worked in a garden, but I had never really tended a garden, and there’s a big difference.
We started by reading some books. I talked to a lot of people. It’s not that hard to get something out of a garden. It gets more complicated understanding how to develop really great soil to get a great yield and how to minimize the risk of losing plants.
I studied soil conditioning and soil microbiology. We had a bunch of problems last year and we learned from them.
Lessons learned from the first year?
So many. One was that planning helps a lot. The first year we started so late that we had to buy starter plants rather than getting them started on our own under lights earlier in the year. That was a huge cost. I bought our entire light setup this year to start all of our seedlings for less than we spent on starter plants last year. Going to the nursery to get your plants is not cheap. So this year we spent the late fall and early winter tracking down good seed and then starting the seedlings under lights.
We didn’t even save any of our seeds from last year’s crop. We realized we didn’t really know where most of the plants came from, what had been put in the soil mixes they were started in, how they were treated…They were all ‘organic,’ but we wanted to start from scratch this year with seeds we know. This year we know. We’re doing it our way and it’s turning out great.
The Roma tomatoes last year all got something called bottom rot, and we found out it was because our soil was low on calcium and we had a long dry spell, then we got tons of rain in early September and that combination of factors caused rot. Now we’ve learned how to deal with that and prevent that.
Things like that come up all the time, and you learn a little bit each time as a result, and you slowly piece it together. I’m sure I’ll still be learning fifty years from now. But the point is, you don’t need to go to school for this. If you want to do it, you can figure it out. You need some knowledge, but you really can just do it.
How does the season develop? When do you start?
In the fall when everything is done, some things get chopped up and put back into the soil. Other stuff gets composted. Some things get left in the soil and put under hay mulch for the winter. Everything gets some oak leaves chopped up and dug in. Soil needs a lot of organic material to really get that bacterial population up and sustained. Without the bacteria to have something to feed on to fertilize the soil, the plants can’t really take off. That’s the key to having good healthy plants.
This spring, we just waited until the soil could be worked. In late February I broke up the soil in the lettuce beds. You dig in your trace minerals, manure…there are a lot of different elements in the soil that you have to have to support healthy plant life.
The plants are all started under lights in the winter. Once the threat of frost has pretty much passed, you start taking the plants out from under the lights inside and start planting the beds. And you keep working the beds and planting well into the season.
Early in the season we cover the rows with hoops and plastic. That mitigates the temperature fluctuations – keeps it warmer for the plants and keeps the wind off them. And we get the whole drip irrigation system in. That takes about a day.
We built three more boxes this year because we didn’t have enough to go around last year. The nightshade crew – tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, potatoes…they’re the most popular things at market. Along with lettuce they sell the best. In order to have more of those things and to get a more solid rotation throughout the season, we expanded. We learned a lot about what we need and when we need it last year.
We’re also growing lots of other stuff. Flowering herbs. Things like sorrel actually sell quite a bit. Sorrel is a dollar an ounce at Whole Foods. We can sell it at a dollar for two ounces, and make a profit, and I can grow a ton of that stuff during the season.
We took a lot from the French. At the turn of the century in Paris they were growing most of their vegetables inside the city. They had great ideas on how to grow as much as possible from small plots of soil. We’re trying to take as much as we can from that model and those techniques – to get things started under cold frames and get them planted as early as possible, and to grow a lot of food in a relatively small space right here in the city.
You mentioned that the key to the business side of the farm is selling directly to local consumers. Who do you sell to?
We started a CSA this year, in our second season. Last year, a lot of the same people were coming to our weekly market week after week, and most of those regulars just bought shares in the CSA.
We sell half shares, because we realized a lot of people would just be getting way more vegetables than they’d need in a typical weeks with full shares. So we charge less for that and give people a little less. I’ve seen CSAs from some farms that just blow people away! WAY too much. You get your box and you’re all stressed out! Like, “What am I gonna do with three rutabegas this week!?”
And we grow seventy varieties of things, and another sixty different herbs. The way we want to run it is to put everything that’s ready out and say, “Here. This is what’s ready. If you have a half share you can take four, if you have a full share you can take seven…” Some people don’t like broccoli or eggplant. We’re not going to force someone to take a whole head of broccoli if they’re not going to eat it. I think making it a little flexible is easier for everyone.
We also have markets that are open to everyone on Sundays, and The Brooklyn Kitchen in Williamsburg and the Brooklyn Standard in Greenpoint sell our produce.
One of the big lessons we learned last year was about sales and distribution. We had full time jobs so we were really winging it. We’d be ready for market day and we’d realize, no one knows we’re here! We didn’t have time to promote it. We’d realize we had all this lettuce that we had to get rid of, so we’d run around putting up flyers, taping up signs, harassing people on the street. We’d take in like fifty dollars on a market day. But people caught on and started coming back again and again.
As the season went on, The Brooklyn Kitchen and Brooklyn Standard starting taking our stuff. They’d take whether we brought them. That became a kind of safety net and things smoothed out, more people started hearing about us through those places, and all of a sudden it all came together. They sell what we give them so fast. We bring it in and it’s gone.
But for a while, before we got our act together, our wives were ready to kill us. They were like, “We used to have a down payment on a house. Now we have a farm!”
We were just like, “No, no! It’s gonna work! I swear!” And it did. It worked.
You know, my tomatoes have been off the vine for a maximum of a few hours before they show up in those shops. That makes a difference. They taste better than they do if they’ve traveled, even if only for a few days. That gives us a distinct advantage. When you only have to travel six blocks to sell your harvest and it tastes better because it’s so fresh, that’s a real advantage.
For me, urban agriculture is the wave of the future. It’s one of the ways food is going to have to be grown. Eventually we’re going to run out of oil, and we’re not going to do stupid things like eat tomatoes from Chile. A lot of forces are at work that are moving us back to a point at which we’re going to have to eat what’s locally grown and available.
That’s not to say you won’t be able to eat well. We’ll probably eat better. The food system won’t collapse in places where you can grow food. It’ll get better. If you’re growing vegetables and wheat on all the open surfaces in a city like this, you’re going to have a lot of food.
This sort of thing has to expand. I quit my job to do this so I could prove it would work.
How do you grow? Organic?
You know, it’s funny. When my dad’s family sold the farm in upstate New York, my grandfather went to work for Ortho, doing fertilizer development. Ortho makes many of the chemicals I now rail against. That I DON’T use. When I see people putting shit like that on their lawns and gardens, I’m like, “NOOO, what are you doing!?” Once you start using that stuff you’re locking yourself into this cycle that’s going to require you to spend hundreds of dollars on more and more chemicals every year to get that lawn you’re looking for, and eventually it’ll collapse anyway.
So here I am today, growing all kinds of food without any of the kind of stuff my grandfather worked to develop. I like to come out here and eat peppers right off the vine. I like to taste lettuce as soon as it’s clipped. I know I should probably be better about washing them before I eat them, and I do before I sell them, but I just can’t help myself sometimes.
You know, one of my heroes is this guy named Pearl Fryar. He’s this guy from South Carolina. He’s African-American and he was trying to buy a home in a neighborhood but the neighborhood board wouldn’t approve it because they were afraid an African-American wouldn’t keep up his yard. So he decided he was going to be the first black man to win the local town’s Yard of the Month award. He took up topiary, and he went nuts with it. Now he’s got the most unbelievable topiary garden you’ve ever seen.
With Tenth Acre, we just said, you know what? Let’s get a farm built. We’ll research it, but we’ll learn and figure things out as we go. We have learned a lot and we’ll keep learning more, but here we are – we’re doing it.