Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Ben Wenk, a seventh generation farmer at Three Springs Fruit Farm, who will be speaking at the summit.
Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?
Ben Wenk (BW): The community I grew up in. I had some other opportunities, but none that gave me more pride or satisfaction than being an Adams County fruit grower. We still have a thriving agricultural economy in Adams County and there’s a lot of people working in it who I respect greatly. My father and uncle would be two of them. Working with family has its difficulties, but it’s important to any multi-generational farmer.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
BW: Consumer education and training would be a big part of it; people need to know how to cook with fresh ingredients. A companion to that would be consumer expectations for aesthetic quality in produce – sometimes local food misses large, hungry groups of people based solely on price. If people identified fresh, but less than aesthetically pleasing produce as a delicious, less expensive option rather than waste, access would increase. And the final part is the distribution – getting aggregation and supply chain in place to reduce the transportation costs. I think that’s three rather than one, but the three are tied closely together.
FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?
BW: I’m impressed and excited by food hubs. That’s a model that can solve that supply and transportation piece that’s not only viable – it’s growing! It’s working. And I’m starting to see the benefits on the farm side of the fence.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?
BW: I’ve had the privilege of working with Mary Seton Corboy at Greensgrow Farms in Philadelphia for going on eight or nine years now. She’s like a force of nature in her ability to get things done against sometimes strong opposition. Her urban farm/garden center/CSA…it’s hard to quickly sum up everything they’ve done in Kensington and now in West Philly, but I’ve been fortunate enough to watch her farm grow and change the landscape and community in that part of town.
FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?
BW: Adams County, PA is right on the door step of Washington, D.C. and right off of U.S. 15. When I was in high school in the early 2000s, residential development started creeping up that highway and it looked like in my lifetime, Adams County could be another bedroom community for D.C. The economy turned down and the threat has receded for now, but I can’t help but think it’s bound to return. The stronger our agricultural industry is, in my mind, the more likely my community can maintain the beautiful green spaces in our county for future generations.
FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with?
BW: Regulations are making it hard for small farms to stay in business. When my grandparents operated the farm, half of their neighbors worked in agriculture. The most recent data I’ve heard puts folks working in production agriculture at 0.6 percent of the population. Who will be our allies legislatively when our voices only carry so far?
FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?
BW: It might be an unpopular opinion in the agricultural sector, but when commodity subsidies are leading more and more folks to processed “cheap” food, it’d be a great place to start. The price our country pays on the back end for these kinds of foods is a tough pill to swallow.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
BW: Buying local food has huge ripple effects on the local food web and as close to the source (the farm) as possible. Join a CSA! Shop at your local farmers market. If you do go to a grocery, buy local there. Reward the restaurants who source from local farms when you make your dining decisions.
FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?
BW: As a young person in agriculture, it’s hard to imagine what being in business in 2036 looks like, but the regulatory pressure for a small producer feels really daunting 20 years out. I either have to expand my business to the point where I can hire somebody with the express purpose of keeping us in compliance, or we’ll need someone in the legislature to place value on small farms that the law currently does not reflect. I need to be able to sell to my neighbors without regulatory impediments to survive.
FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the United States to immediately address?
BW: Agricultural labor. We’ve seen presidents from both parties come and go, kicking this can down the road. Having a stable source of agricultural labor has been sidestepped in favor of “comprehensive immigration reform,” which never comes. With some of the talk bandied about by some of these candidates, I might hope it continues to be kicked down the road. From where I sit, guest worker programs and agricultural labor can be a different problem than immigration reform if candidates are paying attention to agricultural issues. However, they often are not.
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