The Modern Gentlemen Farmer
There was a time on Cape Cod and throughout America when people relied on their own land for the majority of their food. Even highly educated, well-to-do men, often called gentlemen farmers, chose to work their soil. These successful professionals enjoyed the benefits of farm life and getting their hands dirty.
One might think in our current, non-agrarian-based society that gentleman farmers would be few and far between, but in Orleans and Brewster there are at least three men who fit the definition, and all three hold the title of farmer along with doctor. Even with food-a-plenty in our modern grocery stores, these three professionals—a physician, a veterinarian and a dentist—choose to spend as much time working their land as they do tending to their patients. Their dedication to farming is more than a hobby. It is an alternative lifestyle, a commitment to good health and a political statement.
After 38 years, Dr. Ron Backer still works as a primary-care physician, along with diligently tending his collaborative farm in Brewster. Committed to his dual lifestyle and his preference for the more exotic “boutique” vegetables, Ron prefers the term “artisanal professional” to gentleman farmer. He defines his gardening passion: “This is what life is about, wonderful fine things to eat and growing them.”
Never one to stand still, the fit 71-year-old toils at least eight hours a day, five days a week, in the multiple garden plots that comprise Surrey Farms. The other two days he puts in less time when he dons his white coat at the Community Health Center for Cape Cod. Even with the many hours his two partners also contribute, the farm’s many demands require the additional help of one full-time worker and two part-timers.
In Greek, doctor means educator, and Ron believes in teaching his patients and farmers’ market customers how to take care of their bodies through making informed choices. Not surprisingly, he believes the types of food we put in our bodies directly affect our health. On any given Saturday at the Orleans Farmers’ Market, Ron can be found surrounded by an informal crowd as he holds court, extolling the virtues of an unusual, organically grown, South American vegetable or discussing food politics, often in more than one language, since he is conversant in French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese.
Believing in the necessity of a “food revolution,” Ron passionately explained that farmers are doing more than just growing food. “We are also educating [people about] why it is so important to buy food from somebody locally, who you know. It is not coming from an abstract shelf in the market, where you know nothing about where that food came from. You don’t even know if it is organic, even though it is marked organic.” Ron believes it is not right to have a ripe tomato in January. One should eat fresh foods in season, appreciating them at their best, and “be committed to the custodianship of our soil and environment.”
Ron first became interested in gardening when he was in medical school in Switzerland in the 1960s. There he witnessed how the Swiss grew a healthy variety of food, even in the winter, by using cold frames and heavy mulching to grow hearty winter crops. He was also inspired by Europe’s many great flowering gardens. Today, Ron’s old farmhouse in Brewster is surrounded by beautiful flowers, shrubs and fruit-bearing trees. His beloved gardens were inspired by Monet’s garden Giverny, which Ron calls his “Mecca.” Every three to five years he visits France for inspiration. Just like Monet, Ron has an apple espalier framing the first vegetable garden he grew on his property 16 years ago. Standing in his front yard, with his arms spread wide, he exclaims, “This just gives me such pleasure!”
There are many orchestrated layers of plants on his striking, pond-side property, each with a specific purpose. Since Ron is color-blind, he uses a variety of textures, shadows and fragrances to fill his gardens. His front-yard orchard of peach, pear and mulberry trees has a number of striking irises surrounding each trunk, solely to add beauty. Additionally, bees pollinate whatever is blooming, before returning to their hives across the street to make honey for the farm.
Eight years ago, Ron’s original garden was expanded into an empty lot across the street. In this fertile soil that he slowly built up, Ron maximizes space by overlapping companion plantings of asparagus, tomatoes, leeks, and climbing cucumbers or pole beans. Each abundant row of these multiple plantings is identified by an elaborate system of PVC tubing, supported by rebar five feet tall, on which the climbing plants grow and the sprinklers rest.
Ron is always looking ahead and thrives on human connections. Three years ago he started collaborating with the Kaser brothers, Bill and Jim, whose properties are a few houses away. Pooling their efforts and sharing the harvest, they work five gardens and pasture land that they rotate on over 23 acres. The property not only produces vegetables but also meat and eggs and all are sold at local farmers’ markets and through their CSA (community supported agriculture) program, which began last summer. Ron describes how they best use the noncontiguous, patch-worked gardens that make up Surrey Farms, to plant whatever grows best in each space. “What we have is similar to what they have in wine country, with the benefit of different microclimates and different soil, and so certain crops grow better in certain areas of our farm.”
A world traveler, Ron likes to grow interesting and exotic vegetables that remind him of his adventures. A passionate and committed person, Ron plants hundreds of his preferred vegetables, and in the case of asparagus, four thousand plants. Ron exclaims, “I want variety. I want to introduce boutique veggies you might not find on the Cape…and most important high vitamin, high mineral and if possible high protein content, since I am a vegetarian.” He adds, “The goal is to raise healthy, local, bio-sustainable-method food.”
In 1975, at the age of four, Brewster native Bill Kaser knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. He even declared it to a rather surprised Senator Ted Kennedy at the Kaser family’s former Orleans restaurant, The Cleaver. The late Senator expressed his hope that Bill would become a Democrat when he grew up. Without hesitation, the then four-year-old Bill replied, “I’m going to be a farmer!” True to his word, Bill not only became a farmer, but also a veterinarian.
More solitary than his partner Ron Backer, Bill solely manages his farm animals on his ten acres of gently rolling land, along with doing his fair share of the work on Surrey Farms. Bill explained his practical draw to farming. “It is a good hobby for me because I can do it at home.” He also added, “I have the land and it provides food.”
The 39-year-old works at the Brewster Veterinary Hospital while his wife, Megan Kaser, works at The Orleans Inn, which her family owns. Their relatively flexible work schedule makes it easier for them to take turns watching their one-year-old daughter. Bill enjoys carrying her around in a backpack while herding the 15 sheep and 13 lambs, watering the 30 chickens, 25 heirloom turkeys, 12 ducks, 20 geese and playing with the four dogs.
With all these farm animals, Bill devotes at least 28 hours per week to caring for them, on top of his full-time veterinary job. Bill admits that just bringing water to the animals every day is a time-consuming, life-or-death routine. “If you have animals it is not the sort of thing you can do tomorrow. They have to be taken care of every single day. And if you are not taking care of them right, you have problems.”
His commitment to his animals is not a one-way street. The animals help to pay their keep by doing their fair share of work. The sheep have been slowly clearing Bill’s land, returning it to pasture, and they, along with the other animals, are responsible for improving the gardens through their manure that becomes an organic fertilizer. Bill explained that one of his favorite things to do on the farm happens in the fall. “You battle with the garden all year and it is nice when you can just release the sheep and the chickens into the garden and let them eat everything that is left.” While Bill sits back and observes, the animals are simultaneously feasting in and fertilizing the garden, returning everything back to soil.
Growing up, Bill was interested in science and helped his father and grandfather raise chickens, ducks and turkeys, and worked their gardens. It seemed right to Bill that not only would he become a farmer, but a veterinarian as well. Bill grew up eating local, fresh foods. And as cutting-edge as it seems in the culinary world today, these foods were also found at his family’s restaurant, The Cleaver, where fresh bread was made every day, seasonal vegetables came from the gardens, and fresh fish came straight from the fisherman (instead of winding its way up and back from Gloucester, as it mostly does today). Bill’s parents even used their own fresh eggs for Caesar salad, back when one didn’t think twice about serving raw eggs to the public.
In the mid-1990s, Bill bought most of his land from his parents’ large parcel, and later built his home. As he is creating his farm from scratch, he wants to build it slowly and properly. “I hate doing things multiple times because I haven’t really planned things out,” he admits. He took his time deciding where to place water access on the farm, since he knew it would be a big help, sparing him the physical burden and time of carrying 100 gallons of water as part of the daily animal care. Saving money is also part of the management system, along with not wasting anything. For example, letting his sheep out to forage can save $20 per day in feed.
Concerned about our society’s constant focus on getting the cheapest price for goods from a faceless corporation, usually through the internet, Bill is a big fan of farmers’ markets. There, he believes, people are still making connections and know where their food is coming from.
With all the time and effort he devotes to his land and with the animals costing $3,000 last year to maintain, Bill explained how he looks at his productive and healthy hobby. “At the end of the day, I am not so sure you make so much money…I am consistently improving where I live, which improves the quality of my life. That is what I get out of it.”
Wanting to spend more time with his children, Orleans dentist Ben Chung, started attending the Orleans Farmers’ Market three years ago. Surprisingly, he had never been to the market before, since he normally saw patients on Saturdays.
Born and raised in Taiwan, Ben moved with his family to Canada at age 13. After college, he came to the States and graduated from Harvard Dental School in 1996. “Most patients are quite supportive of what we are doing,” the 43 year-old commented. “They are amused that I raise chickens and quails.” As one of Ben’s dental patients and also a friend, I have to admit that with Ben’s infectious enthusiasm and humble nature, it is hard not to be supportive.
Living in an 1850s farm house with his wife, Lillian, five children and a rotation of visiting relatives and guests, Ben started raising chickens in 1998. In 2004, he wanted to do something different, so he started tinkering with a homemade incubator to raise quails. He soon realized he had to invest in a real incubator if he was going to get anywhere with the small birds. By 2006, Ben was managing a flock of over 100 quails that laid beautifully speckled, greenish-blue miniature eggs. Since he enjoys reusing materials, he used old windows and other found items to make a number of small pens to house his large flock. He explained that one benefit of quails over chickens is that they start laying eggs at age five to seven weeks versus five to six months for chickens, although it takes three quail eggs to equal the weight of one small chicken egg.
Ben says the quails were originally supposed to be meat birds, but he soon realized that “Quails are too cute to kill.” With his quail laying 50 eggs per day, Ben starting giving them away to friends and family. Using his love of technology to manage his surplus, he sold the fertilized eggs for incubation on eBay, shipping them around the country. Now with a smaller flock of 50, he only sells the eggs at the farmers’ market and out of his dental office for $4 for 10. Hard-boiled, the miniature eggs are fun to put into salads or to peel at the beach. They are also a delight to behold fried and children love to pop them into their mouth whole.
Lillian, Ben’s wife, was already raising an interesting variety of vegetables on their acre of land, and Ben decided to expand the gardens and sell their wares at the Orleans Farmers’ Market. They named the farm Caroline’s Corner after their fourth child.
With a background in microbiology and an interest in genetic engineering, Ben is deeply disturbed by our nation’s current scientific approach to food. “I know what goes into it,” he said, “I never thought they would go so far: a tomato that doesn’t need to ripen, tinkering with genetic material in corn. These produce are becoming dangerous.” He wants America to be more self-sufficient. “We rely on others to do too much for us.” Ben sees gardening as one answer. “It is a viable self-sustaining way of life.”
Ben fully immerses himself into whatever he is doing. With his dental office attached to his home and the gardens and poultry steps from his front door, he can be found working outside between patients. He sees endless benefits in caring for plants and animals and selling his homegrown products at the market. “Farming answers our questions about community. We each belong and contribute to the community. It benefits my children learning how food is grown, making them more responsible and it gives them a sense of pride.” Additionally, the money that is made at the market prudently goes into five separate college funds.
When asked if he thinks of himself as a gentleman farmer, Ben humbly and without hesitation replies with a smile, “The gentleman part is not big for me. If it was, I’d play golf.”
Ron Backer and Bill Kaser