Matthew Benson: The Seductive Farmer

“Organic is really a euphemism for misshapen beauty, or the Eastern aesthetic philosophy of wabi-sabi, where imperfections, transience, and asymmetry have more value, and are ‘more perfect’ than perfection…The more crazed and cracked the teapot, the wonkier the pear, the greater its integrity, beauty and value.”

-MATTHEW BENSON

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Matthew Benson Photography

At the heart of every country, city, or counter-cultural movement, lies a mythical structure. It is the belief system that brings shade and dimension to what the mind perceives. Whether a person subscribes to the gospel of science, religion, or the self, we all have a story that helps make sense of our place in the world.

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Matthew Benson Photography

While literature, film, and music are obvious mediums for creating narrative; art, fashion, and food also possess the ability to weave tales. The gravitational pull of Manhattan owes its allure to a fading mirage. Though “the American Dream” is not what it used to be, New York City is still a stronghold of youth and ambition.

“You go to New York with the weight of its historical mythology behind you. It is always marketing itself as the center of the universe and everyone buys into it.”

-MB

Matthew Benson’s relationship to New York City was amicable enough, but ended abruptly after a transatlantic sailing expedition. He journeyed from Mallorca to Barbados with his father and upon his return, the appeal was gone. Walking away from a narrative can be terrifying, but for Matthew the experience was immensely liberating.

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Matthew Benson Photography

Part of that urban legend is the potential for chance encounters, of not knowing who you will meet. But the wealth of options also implies the reverse, of missed opportunities. In reality, this is true of any place. It is also a topic that Matthew Benson introduced over dinner one night, while visiting the Upper West Side. “You could walk right by the person you’re supposed to be with and never know it.”

Matthew Benson

Stonegate Farm is tucked to the side of the sloping curvature of River Road, where Matthew and Heidi live on three acres of land that they re-zoned as an agricultural district.

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Myth building is a lot like healthy eating, it only works if you’re actively engaged in it. If you consume what others are feeding, then you’ve already given up control. Our culture’s belief system has a tendency towards absolutes, but for Matthew and Heidi Benson, life is an experiment. They are Americans by birth, Europeans at heart, and authentic in their approach to life. For the last few years, they have been dividing their time between the farm in Balmville and the German state of Bavaria. Heidi has family in Munich, and a job shortage here inspired her to teach art abroad during the school year. Matthew, as a food photographer, still does a fair amount of traveling. This means that they can be separated for months at a time. Heidi likens their relationship to a zipper: two jagged edges that are a difficult fit, but merge together effortlessly. The zipper may open, causing temporary separation, but they remain connected and it is only a matter of time before they reunite.

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They met while working for Martha Stewart in the 90’s, and have been together ever since. As Matthew was obsessed with photography, Heidi remembers that his apartment was also his studio. The bathroom was a make-shift dark room and he had dead animals strewn about, his subjects at the time. Another woman might have run away screaming but Heidi was intrigued.

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Reptiles

Matthew Benson Photography 2

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Matthew Benson Photography

Reflecting back, Matthew realizes that his whole journey leading up to the farm has been an “Odyssey,” a return to the ultimate source. It fulfills a need he had never articulated, not even to himself. His childhood was spent in such a perpetual state of transience that “home” was a shallow concept. He was born in Iowa City, but his father joined the foreign service soon after. The first fifteen years of his life were spent in the urban landscapes of Stockholm, Paris, and The Hague in the Netherlands. And while Matthew was looking for a place of his own, Heidi’s father was looking to sell the house she grew up in, which is now part of their compound. Matthew was initially drawn in by the architectural design, “the way the buildings sit on the land.” The board-and-batten siding spoke to his Scandinavian roots.

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But in terms of vision, all Matthew had to go on was the feeling that he could “build a world of his own making, that was not borrowed.” He had no idea that a love affair with “organic farming” would fill the void. Though he inherited his father’s taste for adventure, he had already explored the “world out there,” and so he shifted his focus to that which contains the most value, the earth and himself. And now, eighteen years later, there is a sense of magic that hangs in the air, of being in the moment and free from artificial constraints.

“It takes a lot of imagination to lead a fulfilled life.”

Fleurs

Matthew approaches farming the same way he engages all of his passions, complete immersion. Always an avid reader, “organic farming” led him into new areas of study. He became obsessive, consuming information about botany, chemistry, insects, soil, the weather… The land awakened a desire and he wants to see her blush with pink roses and sprout leafy greens. His root vegetables penetrate the earth and the honeycombs drip with fragrant nectar. When we hear the word seduction, we think of feverish desire and quivering body parts, but it also sums up the relationship that Matthew Benson wants you to have with his farm-raised goods. Sensuality is as essential to life as air, water, and sunlight. It is obvious that farming “turns him on” and he wants to share that feeling, to grow his mythology beyond Stonegate’s walls.

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Given that “organic” has become the gold standard of agriculture, I was surprised to discover that it does not also imply nutrient density. A plant will only be as rich in vitamins and minerals as its nurturing soil. Farming is like anything else, you only get out of it what you’re willing to put in. It is because of this that Matthew pays great attention to the whole evolution, from seed to fruit. For him, the word “beautiful” is not a superficial attribute. He reintroduces the nourishing minerals that are essential for optimum health.

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Matthew Benson Photography

He uses rock phosphate and rock dust to infuse the soil with lime, calcium, magnesium, boron and potassium; especially important are Nitrogen which creates chlorophyll and muscle structure, Phosphorous which promotes fruit development and Potassium which is good for the roots. They are then grown organically, without the use of pesticides. To keep pests away, he sprays the leaves with clay and covers them with netting. And then after the feast has been harvested, he will capture the imperfect beauty of their natural forms.

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Matthew Benson Photography
But his lens is not just limited to his camera, he also writes about his impassioned love affair.
“Organic is really a euphemism for misshapen beauty, or the Eastern aesthetic philosophy of wabi-sabi, where imperfections, transience, and asymmetry have more value, and are “more perfect” than perfection. In Japan, for example, where the modern CSA movement, called TeiKei, began, wabi-sabi is central to their aesthetic philosophy. The more crazed and cracked the teapot, the wonkier the pear, the greater its integrity, beauty and value.”
– MB
Tomato

When I say that Matthew and Heidi have built an organic farm, I am not just referring to the food that is produced there. It is the heart and soul of everything they do. It describes their quality of life, where every part contributes to the whole. When a tree fell during hurricane Sandy, they had it cut into planks which will be used for repairs. As the “creative director” of their environment, Matthew has created an energized space that promotes the cross-pollination among his preferred disciplines, blending mythology with history and engaging the senses through stunning visuals, aroma, and taste.

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When he wanted to introduce apple and pear trees, he utilized a variety of sources in the undertaking…

“Local farmers insisted that the Hudson Valley, with its centuries of apple production, had created its own Darwinian microcosm of adaptive pestilence that would do me in…Organic apples were truly a forbidden fruit; a tired old trope for original sin. So, of course – always one to succumb to a little biblical temptation – I planted them: Historic apples with seductive, suggestive names like Hidden Rose, Maidenblush, Pink Sparkle. I have the ghost of AJ Downing and his nineteenth century tome Fruit and Fruit Trees of America to thank for much of the fussy decision-making. Downing, who was the foremost pomologist of his time and had his nursery in Newburgh, just a few miles from my farm, is something of a legend in these parts. More than just a plant nerd, he was a prominent horticulturist, landscape designer, architect, and author who cast a long and dazzling spell during his short life.”

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Matthew Benson Photography

“I spent weeks on-line, obsessed, looking for rare and historic apple and pear varieties that Downing knew and grew more than 150 years ago, and stumbled upon a quirky, cranky, rare-fruit nursery on the southwestern tip of Michigan called Southmeadow Fruit Gardens. After cross-referencing varieties they were growing with one’s Downing had written about and praised, I put my order in. We’ve just tasted the first fruit of that planting, with a bushel or more of Golden Russet, with its fine-grained flesh and bronze cheeks; Maidenblush, flaring red over tender, yellow skin; Kerry Pippin, with its spicy aromatic tang; and Hidden Rose, its flesh faintly streaked with pink. They may not be the prettiest pommes out there, but they’ve got plenty of organic personality. And unlike the dull, synthetic supermodels at the A&P, these apples have so much to say.”

– MB

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Maintaining a farm has made both Heidi and Matthew acutely aware of interconnections. Their bees pollinate the flowers and fruit bearing trees, spiders hunt the insects that would feed on the crops, and changes in weather dictate whether a plant will wither or thrive. The current mythology of Stonegate Farms represents the future and history of food. Matthew’s creativity has seeded a way of life that is new and timeless, that honors historical traditions and a new paradigm. It also feeds its farmers, in both the literal and figurative sense.

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Matthew Benson Photography

After speaking with the Bensons, I have a more complete understanding as to why certain practices are now commonplace. Before the Industrial Revolution, families would survive the cold winter months in a variety of ways: owning livestock, canning vegetables, preserving fruit, storing foods that “keep” longer, such as squash, potatoes, and grains, and the curing/smoking of meat. These activities require more discipline and planning but the average person was naturally attuned to the earth in a way that we have since lost. It is what Matthew has discovered through his journey “home.”

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To listen to Matthew talk about the farm is to become infected with his enthusiasm. It is hard to imagine the brooding artist that lies beneath, waiting for his chance to emerge. “When my wife and kids are gone I get into a funk, but I use it and don’t let it use me.”
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When you peel through the layers of all the things that seem important, our relationship to food is paramount, but often overlooked.  We have escaped natural selection by manipulating agriculture, with cloning as the latest development. And whatever the nutritional value is of a vegetable, chances are most of it gets lost in the time it takes to travel to your local store. This means that “farm-to-table” will most likely yield a more nutrient rich meal than “organic” avocados that have been shipped from South America. When it comes to supporting the nearest organic farm, if you don’t care about the political argument, the nutritional benefits, the state of the environment, or the local economy, then the superior taste should be reason enough.
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Stonegate Farm has CSA members, but ultimately it is a luxury that is self-sustaining. Heidi and Matthew have other sources of income and the local grocery store takes the pressure off of having to rely on the harvest. But our whole way of life, and the story that goes along with it, is based on the assumption that oil is abundant. Our dependence on fossil fuel makes us far more vulnerable than anyone would like to admit. A world without it would be unfathomable. It would recast the dye on what is most essential, and small farms would be prized above all else.
Farm to Table

Our relationship to food should be one of pleasure but because of pesticides, GMO, diabetes, processed sugar, obesity, and industrial farming, it is typically fraught with stress. Imagine a world where eating is not only guilt-free, but a nutrition filled feast for the senses! Matthew Benson can and he wants to educate you on “Growing Beautiful Food.”

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Matthew Benson’s photography is in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography, New York, as well as numerous private and gallery collections. His work has been awarded both DESI and Society of Publication Designers Awards and appears regularly in magazines, books, catalogs and folios. He is on the National Speakers Tour for the Garden Clubs of America, and lectures widely on Garden and Landscape Photography. 

He is a contributing editor and television spokesman for Rodale’s Organic Gardening, and writes and photographs frequently on issues of sustainability, organics. His latest book projects are Urban Farm(Abrams, 2012), The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook (Workman, 2013) andThe Photo-Graphic Garden: Mastering the Art of Digital Garden Photography (Rodale, 2012).  He is currently working on Growing Beautiful Food (Rodale 2015) based on his organic farm in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Author : Ashley Rabin

3 thoughts on “Matthew Benson: The Seductive Farmer

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