As a teacher and life-long farmer respectively, Lisa and Jeff Bender come from different backgrounds but share the same drive to make the world a better place. Together, they’ve managed a farm in eastern North Carolina that has had its share of cattle, dairy cows, tobacco, produce, and now malt-quality heirloom corn. The Benders have recently joined the Epiphany family to grow corn that will one day make its way through our malthouse and into the beers and spirits that we enjoy. This post is part of the “Know Your Farmer” series, which profiles farmers who collaborate with Epiphany in their own words. Check out our other posts to learn more about the people who grow the foundation of fermentation.
Can you tell me about how your farm has evolved over the years to get to where you are now?
JEFF: We started out with a small beef cattle herd, doing some odd farming and so forth. And that just was going nowhere. So we put in a dairy operation. Lisa and I started that from scratch — starting in 1990, started milking in 1991. It was an awful lot of work. We really enjoyed it, because we were really proud of producing a quality product that by and large people appreciate. We worked together for 10 years on that. But the economics of the dairy business in the Southeast are terrible — in fact, when we started, there were 2000 dairies in North Carolina, and when we got out there were just over 300.
So we went back into the tobacco business — I had grown up on a tobacco farm. But the tobacco business, not unlike the dairy business, was on a downward trend in North Carolina and still is. So at the same time, we started to increase our produce production. That started out just growing some sweet corn because when we had dairy cows, we were growing so much of it. And we’ve grown since then. We’re not a big produce producer by any means, but we raise 20 to 40 acres of various crops each year.
LISA: We’ve evolved towards produce because we like knowing that what we produce goes to somebody’s table — something that we know is kind of the centerpiece of family life. And the evolution of the grains is kind of the same way — Jeff’s contributing to an art. The art of making distilled products, the art of making beer. We really are excited by the potential to grow things that then feed people’s passions.
So how did you get connected with Epiphany?
JEFF: We’d sold a little bit of open-pollinated heirloom corn to a distillery last year, and I thought that Sebastian may be interested in something that was for products other than beer. My cousin, Jonathan, also grows some barley for Epiphany. So I called Sebastian up and we had a meeting, and I’m really excited and optimistic about the opportunity to work together. I’m really looking forward to starting to build a relationship with Sebastian as well as with some of his customers.
Bender Farms is part of an initiative to provide produce for local schools. How did you get involved with that?
LISA: We got involved with that through a local nonprofit, Working Landscapes. They were trying to boost local agriculture by linking customers with local growers and thus boosting our local economy here in Warren County, and they linked us up with schools in the area.
I will say, as a teacher, and especially as a teacher in a school where most of my kids are students of color and most of them are at the poverty line or below, food security is a huge issue. I’m proud that we can contribute to a healthy product that is going to help meet my student’s primary needs — and that we’re part of the supply that ensures that, at least while they’re at school, they can eat healthy, nutritious, locally-produced food.
How did you meet — and get into farming?
JEFF: I’ve been farming for about 30, 40 years. Ever since I was old enough to pick up a hoe and scratch in the backyard, I knew that I wanted to farm. I’ve always been fascinated by growing things, and I enjoy seeing the fruits of my labor. When I graduated from N.C. State, I took a job with an agriculture consulting company for about six months, but ultimately I wanted to get back on the farm, get my hands dirty, do it myself. And so I can’t imagine doing anything else.
LISA: I, on the other hand, grew up in Raleigh. I was a city girl.
The first time Jeff and I met was at a football game — it was a semi-blind date. Two weeks later, we were at a restaurant, and I was asking him questions about farming. I knew nothing — I was completely ignorant. As we talked more and more about farming, he said, “Well, most people don’t know where their food comes from.”
And I have a habit of reacting with a very quick joke — and I responded, “What, like from a grocery store?”
Oh my gosh. The look on his face! It was like I had visibly scared him. I quickly assured him that I was kidding, and the rest is history.
But my transition to the farm life was a bit of a culture shock. It was quite different. But with Jeff and I, I knew I was going into teaching, and I recognized that he had the same passion for making a difference in the world that I did. And his path was through growing things and providing food for people. And we were both willing to work however hard we needed to in our different fields. And since then, I’ve come to realize why he loves it all so much.