Ben King sums up the seasons of farming: “In the middle of the summer I ask myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ and when we get to fall I want to quit.” He smiles. “But then as winter heads into spring, I spend hours with the seed catalogues and look forward to planting and doing it all over again.”
Ben learned carpentry as a teenager and started his own business, specializing in decks, when he was 21. “But I got tired of the headaches of working in construction,” he says. His father had subdivided the 14-acre family farm in Nottingham, and Ben’s sister and her husband took over the dairy operation. In 2010, Ben began growing vegetables while his wife continued to grow the gorgeous cut flowers she enjoys cultivating.
Ben is a second-generation vendor at the Kennett Square Farmers Market. His father, Daniel, began bringing potted plants and cut flowers from his Shady Grove Greenhouse in 2006. When Ben’s mother became ill in the summer of 2013, Ben finished out the season for his father. And he asked Abby Morgan, then market manager, if he could come back the next season with vegetables.
“I enjoy selling a product I like to eat myself to others who enjoy it too,” he says. But he smiles wryly as he gives a behind-the-scenes peek into what it takes to keep everything in season and bring such an abundance and variety of beautiful flowers and produce to Market every week. “It’s like a circus,” he says. “And it’s never ending.” This time of year, they pick zucchini every day. Most other days find them harvesting, trimming, and washing vegetables and cutting and bundling flowers for wholesale auctions as well as for the Friday market here in Kennett Square. Ben also continues to plant zucchini, cucumbers, and beets throughout the season. Corn, which yields a single harvest, is a particular challenge. “If I want to bring corn every week, I have to find time to plant every seven to ten days—between weather events.”
The weather, of course, escalates the difficulties. “I hope we’re not starting a pattern here,” Ben says. The increased rainfall brings increased risk of disease for many plants, including tomatoes and peppers, when they’re wet all night and much of the day as well. He has four greenhouses—two for cut flowers, and one each for potted plants and tomatoes—where it’s a little easier to control the growing environment. Ben’s selection of heirloom tomatoes, with names like Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye, Black Pineapple, and Large Barred Boar, is impressive. How many varieties does he grow? “Too many,” he says with a grin.
Ben brings wisdom and integrity to his farming, as well as a willingness to change and adapt. In 2014, he experienced some health issues and decided to stop spraying his crops with chemicals. It changed how he farmed and meant he could no longer grow certain varieties. “I didn’t want to sell what I wouldn’t eat myself,” he says. “You can do well with some things in a wet year with a good fungicide program—but who wants to eat it?” He notes that most pesticides and fungicides now work systemically through the plant and so remain in the food we eat. “And that’s not good,” he says.
Family is important to the Kings, who have five children and enjoy living near extended family as well. “We help each other out,” Ben says. Many Farmers Market customers will recognize their oldest, Amos, who is there most Fridays along with Chuck, Ben’s right-hand-man. Daughter Rachel (9) helps on the farm as well, and Levi (7) also likes to be part of things. “But we won’t be depending on what he does just yet,” Ben says with a laugh. Ben, Jr. (4) and baby Omar round out the family. Both sets of Ben’s grandparents were around until recently, and he treasures having memories of them all. Sundays are for church and visiting family, and on the rare occasion when Ben has the time, he enjoys fishing.
Regular Market customers will know that Ben moved this season from State Street to his current location near the parking garage. “It was just too dangerous,” he says. “It’s much more peaceful here.” Trucks on State Street hit his trailer numerous times and even pushed it up onto the sidewalk. Taking over the spot long occupied by fellow Amish farmer John Stoltzfus of London Vale Farm has provided some entertainment, too. Customers will say to Ben, “Oh, you’re back,” or ask why he doesn’t have eggs anymore. Ben laughs. “Just because we have the same straw hat, people think I’m John.”
He says it’s surprising how many people he meets have grown up on a farm or have some connection that gives them an appreciation for what goes into farming. “There’s a behind-the-scenes relaxed attitude in Kennett Square,” Ben says, and he enjoys getting to know his customers and fellow vendors.
Since it’s the middle of the busy summer season, Ben is probably asking himself right about now why he’s doing this. So stop by to say hello and express your gratitude for Ben, and all of our local farmers, by stocking up on the beautiful flowers and produce they work hard all year to grow.