It's Fair Weather at FairhillJun 06, 2019 09:07AM ● By J. Chambless
By Richard L. Gaw
When Nancy Bentley and her husband Randy purchased a five-acre property in Fair Hill 11 years ago, it was perfectly suited to be the canvas upon which Nancy could construct her dreams.
As a young girl growing up in Newark, she fantasized about someday becoming a farmer, and by the time she was ten years old, she was getting her hands dirty in her mother's garden plot, growing tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and carrots.
The young girl went all in: she volunteered to muck out stalls and walk horses at Carousel Park in Pike Creek, she raised and showed horses, and as she got older, Nancy pored through issues of Rodale's Organic Gardening magazine.
“I was struck from a very young age why we had to manipulate growing things, given that for hundreds of thousands of years, food had been grown and produced without any kind of manipulation,” Nancy said. “I began to read all I could about the advantages of organic farming.”
For more than 30 years, Nancy shared her knowledge of gardening, farming and sustainability in a continuing road show of education. She spoke at the Food Bank of Delaware and at several schools, where she would teach classes as part of the “Healthy Food for Healthy Kids” program. Her teaching didn't end in the classroom; Nancy would also help design gardens at schools, working in the soil with children.
Fair Weather Farm at Fairhill opened in 2008 as an organic farm, and it quickly took on a semblance of Nancy’s childhood dreams, realized. There were chickens, a horse, and the wide-open, row after row expanse of produce, popping from the untilled soil, there for a small newly-formed CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) membership to enjoy seasonal, locally grown food, without pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers.
On any given year, the farm grows an assortment of organic vegetables which include gourmet lettuces, kale, Swiss Chard, arugula, spinach and mustard greens, summer squash, peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and zucchini, as well as root vegetables like radishes and beets.
Several years ago, while the five-acre farm was blossoming, a friend of Nancy's father asked her if she knew her neighbor, Lilian Watkins, a long-time Delaware teacher who lived in the historic Watkins Home on Telegraph Road in Elkton, which sat on 42 acres of property.
Born in 1912, Watkins taught second grade at Richardson Park Elementary School in Wilmington for several decades (she even taught Nancy's father), was a charter member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and a member of the Cecil County Historical Society. “My dad's friend told me, ‘you need to meet Lilian,’” Nancy said. “So I went over and knocked on her door, and about three hours later, I finally left. We made an immediate connection.”
Their initial meeting led to a close friendship between Nancy and Watkins, who was by then well into her 90s. When Watkins passed on Sept. 23, 2012 at the age of 99, the person managing the family's estate and trust asked Nancy to assist with cleaning out the old farmhouse. In every room lay drawer- and closet-fulls that documented Watkins' life: photographs, mementos and trinkets that served as a retrospective of not only one person's history but the history of an entire community.
“Although she and her husband Oliver had no children of their own, Lilian really had thousands of children, whom she impacted through her teaching,” Nancy said. “I knew from the start that this home and the property behind it was a special place, and that it could also serve as a place of teaching.”
In 2015, Nancy was given the opportunity to purchase the Watkins Farm -- which she and Randy did, which certainly rescued the property from potential real estate development. Soon, project by project, planting by planting, the widening expanse of Nancy’s dream grew in proportion to the farm’s production. Led by the farm’s relationship with its CSA members, Fair Weather Farm produces fresh organic vegetables, greens, pastured chicken eggs, flowers and herbs. It also hosts 20 bee hives – vital for sustaining the farm’s ecosystem – that produces fresh honey. In addition, the wool from a 36-count herd of Gotland sheep goes into the making of woolen socks, rugs, bedspreads, throws, yarns and more.
Since the farm began, something else has also been cultivated: Fair Weather Farm at Fairhill has become not only a working farm, but a 42-acre natural classroom. In January 2016, Nancy established the Watkins Farm for Our Future, in Lilian's honor. Its mission serves as a generous overlap of what originally drew Nancy to farming and education, and also provides its direction: To educate the community on sustainable, healthy eating and self-sufficient living.
The program offers school children the opportunity to get out of their classrooms and into the natural environment of a working farm, where they learn about healthy eating and gain an appreciation and knowledge of how a farm works.
“I used to arrive at schools with a chicken in my arms, and I loved be able to reach young people about the importance of farming and where their food comes from,” she said. “When I was growing up, there were farms everywhere, and every year, we'd take a visit to the farms. Now, I thought, where now do kids still have this opportunity? It began to take hold in me that I loved the aspect of teaching, and that this could be another purpose for the farm. I loved not only the growing of things, but the ability to share it.”
Dr. McKay Jenkins, the Cornelius Tilghman Professor of English, Journalism and Environmental Humanities at the University of Delaware, arranges visits to the farm with his students. (Over the past 30 years, Jenkins has become a leading expert on the rising threats to that beauty, including toxic chemicals, water pollution and climate change. His books include Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet, and ContamiNation.)
Throughout the year, the Watkins Farm for Our Future extends to an ever-changing schedule of classes and workshops, which include bee keeping, taught by Ray Walker of the Delaware Beekeepers; spinning classes taught by a local weaver; and guest speakers who give talks on holistic health and wellness, and how to grow, preserve and prepare healthy food options. The farm’s annual spring and fall festivals provide demonstrations of blacksmithing, woodworking and weaving.
“Watkins Farm for Our Future is about educating and inspiring people to lead a healthier and less stressful life, and to establish this farm as a place of learning,” Nancy said. “I have always felt that I am more able to reach people by asking them to come here. They can walk with me up and down rows, and I can I tell them, ‘This is where your Swiss Chard was grown, and this is where your organic tomatoes came from.'”
To own and operate a farm – whether it be five acres or 42 – is to partially surrender your life to its maintenance and the design for its future, and for Nancy and Randy Bentley, the continuing life of the Fair Weather Farm at Fairhill remains a work in progress. In May, ten of the Gotland sheep were about to deliver; Randy was installing flooring in a renovated barn; there were several planned workshops to prepare for; the addition to the main farmhouse was still in progress; and the early spring rainfall was contributing to an overabundant growth of vegetables that were popping from the soil, and needed monitoring.
“When our friends and members of the community visit us, a lot of them say, ‘Look at how much you’ve done on the farm,’ but in reality, we look around and know that there is so much more for us to do here,” Nancy said. “There are moments, however, when I tell Randy, ‘Let’s just enjoy this for a while.’”
Fair Weather Farm at Fairhill is located at 5821 Telegraph Road, Elkton, Md. 21921. The farm holds an open market for the general public on Thursdays from 2 to 6 p.m., from June 12 – Aug. 14, and Aug. 28-Nov. 6. To learn more, visit www.FairWeatherCSA.com, or to keep up to date on upcoming classes, special events and workshops, follow them on Facebook.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].