Salt of the Earth

in Features/Profiles

 “Birds get drunk on blueberries,” Guy Beardsley says. We’re idling on his John Deere Gator next to a row of scarlet-colored blueberry bushes. It’s a warm October morning in 2019, humid enough that dew still clings to the blueberry leaves in spite of the heat. The image of drunken birds makes me laugh, but Guy’s matter-of-fact. “We cover the blueberries up with bird netting, because otherwise the birds really do become inebriated,” he says, cornflower eyes peering at me over his glasses. His voice is gravelly and warm, like a 1920s radio announcer coming in through the static.

If anyone knows about blueberries and birds, it’s Guy Beardsley, who has been an organic farmer in Shelton, Connecticut, for almost thirty years. He can tell you why white clover is superior to pink clover (it puts nitrogen back into the soil and the bees love it), why corn silk is vital to an ear of corn (it pollinates each kernel), and why cows shouldn’t eat too many apples (like birds, the sugar overwhelms their fiber-inclined systems and they get drunk).

Guy is the only 90-year-old I’d bet could beat me in an arm-wrestling match, mostly because he still splits his own firewood in the winter. He can also tell you exactly what the planting season weather was like two years ago. The only sign he’s in his nineties are his turnip-shaped knuckles, swollen from years of weeding. He has wrinkles that only a kind person could have—crinkles around his eyes from smiling and forehead ridges from raising his eyebrows when he tells the best part of a story.

He’s so kind that he didn’t even question a stranger like me calling last fall to ask if he would spend three months teaching her about farming. My grandfather was a rancher in northern Nevada, so I knew about working with animals, but I didn’t know the first thing about working with soil. I wanted to learn. He agreed to help me without skipping a beat. “So when ya coming by?” he asked.

***

Twelve miles west of New Haven, the signs along Route 34 become handmade. By the time you pass Maltby Lakes, glossy billboards for personal injury attorneys surrender to hand-painted ads for milk and hay. The space between houses begins to widen so that by the time you reach the town of Shelton, the trees appear to outnumber the people. Brick smokestacks along the Housatonic River add an early industrial grit to what otherwise would be another quaint Connecticut town. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Shelton’s factories made everything from razor strops to bicycle forgings. These days, the main relic of the town’s industrial past is the WIFFLE ball headquarters on the edge of town.

Guy’s Eco-Garden (or “the farm” as the family calls it) is technically located in White Hills, four miles north of the former industrial hub. This is the most rural part of Shelton, where rabbits aren’t afraid of people and poison ivy climbs the trunks of fall-colored trees.

Sometime between its construction in 1749 and now, Guy’s house learned to relax. Its right angles have softened with age. In the summer, the boards swell up with humidity, but come November, they contract in the dry winter air. This back and forth has left the farmhouse with a charming, slightly bloated silhouette. Guy grew up here, and so did his father and grandfather. His great-grandfather, a man “as wide as he was tall,” bought the property in 1849.

Guy’s main patch of land is the four-acre lot around his farmhouse. It hosts: a bakery, a vineyard, a lavender patch, thirteen turkeys, a tractor-sized compost pile, Brussels sprouts (“The English eat them for breakfast, but that’s sort of a stretch,” Guy says), blackberries, elderberries, okra, five types of kale, a hoop-house, a greenhouse, a drying house for the garlic, a sign marking the “Chapel of Saint James of the White Hills” that his son-in-law planned (but never managed) to build, a fleet of barking Chihuahuas that surround visitors like angry flagella, and a fridge containing exclusively clams.

To one of the barn swallows flying overhead, Guy’s farm probably looks like nothing more than a green blip between his brother’s brown cider mill and red apple orchard. The farm is bordered at the front by Route 110, and in the back, by a row of McMansions with family names embossed on their stone veneer siding in Edwardian Script. All of it—Route 110, the McMansions, even the apple orchards—was hayfields for most of Guy’s life.

Guy was born five miles away from the farm at Griffin Hospital in October of 1930. He was a child of the Depression, when the farm’s philosophy was “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Socks were darned, holes were patched, and nothing was wasted. Guy still can’t bring himself to waste much now. He won’t even compost scapes, the bright green, spaghetti-shaped shoots that grow out of the tops of his garlic plants. He grinds them into garlic scape pesto instead.

Guy grew up in a pre-automated world, when horses, not tractors, drew plows and Model T pick-ups had hand cranks. He went to a one-room schoolhouse down the road, but he wasn’t assigned homework until high school. His teacher knew that farm kids were too busy—by age seven Guy was raking behind the hay cart, and by age ten, he was milking, weeding, hoeing, fixing roofs, fixing fences, and feeding cows. He started his days at nautical dawn, when it was still dark enough to see the stars, but light enough to make out the horizon. The world was windless and blue, the earth still cold from the night before. Guy began his days silently like this, walking from the farmhouse to the barn and milking the cows before the world was awake. 

He went to Norwich University, a military college in Vermont, as World War II came to a close. “It was more than just ROTC. We had tanks,” he informed me. Guy’s military uncle was the one who inspired him to join the service. He taught Guy to shoot in the aptly named “Shooting Lot,” which is now an apple orchard belonging to Guy’s brother. Walking through the field today, you can still find shell casings as big as your thumbs.

Guy was home from college the first time his father used DDT. The senior Mr. Beardsley composted before it was trendy and avoided using pesticides outside of his orchard. But in 1950, everyone was talking about the magical compound that WWII soldiers sprinkled in their sleeping bags to ward off pests. The other farmers in White Hills raved that DDT kept their crops clear of pests and weeds. Curious what the fuss was about, Mr. Beardsley and Guy waded through his three acres of corn with a 2 ½ gallon-sized sprayer full of the chemical. When he and Guy returned to the field ten days later, the corn was free of weeds, but Mr. Beardsley was convinced there was something unnatural about it. Twelve years before Rachel Carson would confirm it in her seminal book, Silent Spring, Mr. Beardsley knew DDT was bad news. “If it’s doing this to the weeds,” he said to Guy, “what’s it doing to us?” That was the first and last time DDT touched Beardsley land.

Guy graduated from Norwich two years later and entered the Army as a Second Lieutenant. Over the next 28 years, his assignments took him everywhere from Italy to Korea to Vietnam to Texas.

He headed a tank unit in the Korean War and served as a pilot and Air Cavalry troop commander in Vietnam. By the time Guy left the service, he was a Lieutenant Colonel, a husband, and a father. He and his wife, Pat, moved 27 times throughout his military career, but they spent most of their time in Killeen, Texas, the sleepy, dusty town next to Fort Hood. They decided to move back to Connecticut after a particularly tumultuous two years during which Pat was diagnosed with cancer, her mother died, and both of Guy’s parents passed away. By 1984, Killeen felt too far from home.

Guy had no intention to farm even after they moved back to the Shelton farmhouse. It was just nice to be back with the maple trees he tapped for syrup as a child and the fence that Winner the Bull once broke through in pursuit of a man in a red coup. However, in 1987, after quitting his manager job at the nearby Petrol Plus to help Pat with her new antique business, Guy started planting vegetables in his spare time. With Pat undergoing chemotherapy, Guy wanted everything he grew to be completely safe and natural for her to eat. In 1988, together they started an organic farm. 

***

Organic farmers preserve the essentials. Unlike automated, pesticide-laden conventional farming, organic farming keeps it simple. Farmers focus on the ultimate fundamental: soil. Building off the premise that the earth is a closed system, organic farmers return everything they take from the earth. If Guy plants a vegetable like Brussels sprouts that take nitrogen from the soil, the next year he’ll plant something like clover to replenish the spot with nitrogen. Organic farmers don’t take shortcuts, even though it would be easier just to spray some pesticides and chemical fertilizers and call it a day. In the long run however, their steady principles don’t let them down.

Take the story of the diamondback moth, for instance. With wings closed, it resembles a brown, curled-up leaf, or a Praying Mantis’s friendlier cousin. But as larvae, they’re disturbingly wriggly caterpillars, gorging themselves on the undersides of leaves. Diamondback moths (DBMs for short) target cruciferous crops like kale or cabbage, sucking the juice from their leaves until they resemble a frosted windowpane. DBMs don’t contaminate the produce, but in an age of Grapples (grape-flavored apples) and rectangular watermelons, when appearances are paramount, any cosmetic damage could render a vegetable unsellable.

If Guy was a conventional farmer, he could exterminate the diamondback moth with an insecticide like Lannat LV or Voliam Xpress, but that might also kill the farm’s pollinators and contaminate the groundwater. This would throw off the entire soil-produce-compost cycle that a healthy ecosystem needs, and even then, the diamondback moths might not be gone. DBMs have been outsmarting farmers and chemists since at least 1953, when they became the first insects to develop a resistance to DDT. Since then, DBMs have become resistant to over 95 insecticides, which is pretty much all of them. A short-term solution like pesticides can’t solve a long-term problem like pesticide-resistant pests.

Guy goes back to the basics to combat DBMs. Healthy plants better withstand pests, and for that, they need good soil. A steady method like crop rotation is the surest path to lasting pest prevention. By changing the crops and locations he plants every year, he alternates the nutrients removed from the soil, and bewilders the pests who wait for last year’s crop in last year’s field. Ask a conventional farmer about his DBM problem and he might mention a new pesticide he’s trying, but more often than not, he’ll tell you about crop rotation, a technique that farmers have been using for millenia. Even conventional growers have learned to value simple, organic solutions.

Farmers tormented by DBMs haven’t been the only ones turning to organic methods. Around the same time Guy was flying fixed-wing Otters over Vietnam in the 1960s, a group of young anti-war protestors was learning to farm in the northeast. Scared straight by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and inspired by the early environmental movement, they started the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), hoping to bring about a collective return to the soil. Most of NOFA’s early members were academics, not farmers. NOFA’s founder, Samuel Kaymen, grew up assuming that food was assembled in the back of the grocery store. He and his wife Louisa left mainstream society in 1964 to start a self-sufficient farm in upstate New York. However, he quickly realized that library books about farming weren’t going to cut it: Samuel, and others like him, needed practical experience and help. He founded NOFA to fill their knowledge gaps. The association designated farms as “Certified Organic,” but most importantly, it was a way for northeastern farmers to educate one another. 

Bill Duesing, a Yale graduate and organic activist, was among the shaggy-haired farmers gathered in a Vermont field for NOFA’s first meeting in 1971. It was an informal affair—to an outside observer, the meeting probably looked like nothing more than a bunch of “sixties kids” (as Guy calls them) crouching in weeds. Despite NOFA’s humble beginnings, state chapters quickly sprang up around the northeast, and in 1982, Bill decided to start a NOFA group in Connecticut. Guy and Pat met Bill a few years later, and Guy joined the NOFA board as its most unlikely member. He’d fought in the war they’d protested. Their dramatic return to the soil was just an adoption of the methods that his family had used for generations. Despite their differences, Guy, Pat, Bill, and Bill’s wife, Suzanne, worked together to establish about a dozen farmer’s markets throughout Connecticut. Guy’s dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed: even now, the Monroe Farmers Market throws him a birthday party every year.

***

“Not much red this year,” Guy said last October, gesturing at the thicket of trees across the street from his potato field. We’d parked the Gator and were checking to see  if there were any more potatoes to dig up before November’s garlic planting season. I hadn’t noticed it before, but he was right. The fall trees were only orange and yellow around here. Guy told me that this had to do with rainfall. If the fall weather is too moist, the leaves won’t turn red. I’d never wondered why the trees changed the colors they did before. I’m from Southern California, where the only season is spring.

Guy sees no need to beat around the bush when it comes to the cycle of life. Last October, he took me to the tree where they defeather the freshly killed Thanksgiving turkeys. He pointed out the practical features of the tree that made it perfect for “processing”: it had low-hanging branches and was far enough away that the turkeys still alive in the enclosure couldn’t see their fallen comrades. Once, at his brother’s farm shop toward the end of November, Guy discussed the turkey slaughtering process—in great detail—with his brother behind the counter. The Thanksgiving shoppers were scandalized. His friend Becky reminded him that he should refer to the process in public as “preparing the turkeys for their big day,” but he thought those euphemisms were ridiculous. Turkeys are raised as farm animals—harvesting them is just another part of the fall season.

Guy gets almost as excited talking about last year’s rainfall as he does telling stories about the times that God has saved his life. Guy loves God. He particularly loves stories in which God plays a starring role. “I’m telling you, God was in complete control of that situation! Complete control!” he said, concluding a story about the time when, mid-flight in Vietnam, an unpinned grenade miraculously failed to detonate. His mother was a devout Christian and brought him up in the church. Some people have a “born again” moment, but Guy never did. “I always figured that God was part of my life, and God has really done a tremendous amount of work with me in keeping me alive,” he said. “He brought me through twenty-eight years in the Army.”

God and the cosmos have a place in the day-to-day of Guy’s farm. He operates his planting season according to the Stella Natura biodynamic calendar hanging from a clipboard in the hoop-house. It’s an updated version of an astrological planting system first used by the ancient Egyptians on their farms in the Nile Delta. Using the movements of the planets and stars as a guide, the calendar can tell you the right time to plant or transplant every category of produce (root, flower, fruit, and leaf). Guy loves that the Stella Natura connects his farm to a divine astrological system. “What God created there are the life forces. Life forces,” he repeated. “Very important.” For Guy, everything is part of a beautifully orchestrated natural system. We watched the pollinators work their magic on the squash one day. “All kinds of creatures can pollinate it,” Guy said, pointing to the beetles and bees crawling inside a squash flower’s ova. “Some creatures like to even sleep in them,” he said. I laughed and asked if the plants minded the intrusion. “No, they’re okay. They’re just doing their part,” he said. “They’re doing good, they’re doing good.”

As he nears ninety-one, Guy has slowed his pace, but not by much. He received a lifetime achievement award from the Connecticut chapter of NOFA this spring, and his Eco-Garden remains a top destination for quality seedlings and specialty products like lavender and black garlic. Twice a month, Guy co-hosts “The Organic Farm Stand,” a radio show on WPKN 89.5 FM. On the first and third Thursday every month, rain or shine, Guy’s on the air, providing listeners from Connecticut to Rhode Island with farm updates and organic growing tips. Even after hip surgery last year, Guy called into the show from his sickbed. 

Soon, it will be mid-November. If this year is the same as the last, Guy will spend most of his days on the tractor, harrowing the fields in preparation for garlic planting. Later in the month, when it’s so cold his fingers go numb, he’ll be in the fields with his friends and farmhands, placing garlic bulbs in the soil. In April, the scapes will break through the ground, reaching up for spring sunlight; Guy will snap them off and grind them into pesto. And come July, when the barn swallows begin their southward migration, Guy will harvest the garlic and bring it to market.

—Nancy Walecki is a senior in Grace Hopper College.

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