By Melissa Arnold
There’s nothing quite like spring in full bloom — the weather’s finally breaking, flowers are popping up everywhere, and it’s easy to get the kids outside for some fresh air and sunshine, even in the middle of a pandemic.
Unfortunately, most of the area’s most beloved spring locales are closed, their events canceled indefinitely until cases of COVID-19 have declined to safer levels. Without their usual income, many small businesses are struggling to pay the bills and must find creative new ways to keep the lights on.
Among them are Benner’s Farm in Setauket, well known in the community for its seasonal festivals and educational opportunities for both children and adults. With in-person field trips and large gatherings impossible, they’re trying to reinvent the wheel.
“Normally this time of year would have class after class coming in to see the farm and our new animals,” said owner Bob Benner. “We’ve had births of lambs, goat kids, chicks and bunnies, but no one can visit them — there are no workshops or Mommy and Me events, no birthday parties …. there’s literally nothing. So we’ve had to ask ourselves, ‘What can we do?’”
At Easter time, with 20,000 candy-filled eggs ready to go, Bob awoke in the middle of the night with an idea: What if they sold 50-egg boxes for families to have their own hunts at home? By the time the holiday arrived, they’d sold 100 boxes. Encouraged, the Benners sought to continue the momentum.
Next came an online store, with t-shirts and maple products for sale at www.bennersfarm.com, and a GoFundMe campaign which raised more than $6,000 to keep staff paid and animals fed.
Now they’ve created a “My First Garden Learning Kit” geared toward children containing everything you need to grow a dozen different flowers and plants. The kits include planters, potting soil, a template to sort and examine seeds, plant markers, and an instruction booklet with pictures and information about each plant at various stages of growth.
Both Bob and his wife Jean have spent decades working as teachers in addition to running the farm. Jean said that they work hard to approach every project with an educational focus, trying to see each aspect as a child would.
“We purposely chose seeds that are all different sizes and shapes, mature at different times, and are not too tiny so that kids can handle them,” she explained. “The seeds we’ve chosen are all meant to be interesting and recognizable. Marigold seeds look like tiny paintbrushes; calendula seeds resemble tiny worms.”
The seed starter kits went on sale at the end of April. Within two days, they’d sold 70 kits and were ordering more boxes to fill. So far, so good.
“It’s been successful especially because people are telling their friends and family. We’ve had orders come in from other places around the country, too,” said Jean.
The Benner family moved to Setauket from Northport in the late 1970s. Their eldest son, Ben, said that his earliest memories involved being dressed in overalls and driven to see the badly overgrown property. The area was first farmed in the 1750s, and the Benners revitalized it using books on homesteading as a guide. What was originally meant to be a hobby for Bob and Jean slowly evolved into something much more.
“This is our life here, and it’s so strange to see the farm empty,” Ben said. “We miss the energy of the kids, getting to see people every day, hosting our programs. This is all we want to do.”
While the Benners have no idea what the future holds or what events they’ll be able to host next, they know that the success of the farm rests in continuing local support and encouraging a love for nature in children.
“As a society, we’ve lost a certain amount of knowledge and appreciation for nature. Kids that grew up in previous generations would be out working in farms and gardens, and that doesn’t happen much around here anymore,” Ben said. “I think it’s such an important thing to learn about the process of how plants grow, and it’s a lot of fun to go out and pick your food, knowing where it comes from and knowing you did it yourself. We want to spark that interest in as many kids as possible.
Seeds included in the garden kit:
▪ Green squash (zucchini)
▪ Purple bush beans
▪ Swiss chard
Each kit costs $25. They can be picked up from Benner’s Farm at 56 Gnarled Hollow Road, Setauket. Call ahead to arrange an in-person, contactless pickup. Prepayments using a credit or debit card are preferred, but arrangements can be made for cash payment. Online orders placed at www.bennersfarm.com are $35 each and will be sent out within 24 hours. For the latest information about the farm, to make purchases or donations, call 631-689-8172 or visit their website.