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If you like going to local farmer’s markets, then you’ve likely seen or met Bo Bennett. A passionate gardener who considers himself a bit of a modern day Mendel, Bennett hails from Magnet Cove, Ark. His first introduction to gardening came during his college years at the University of Central Arkansas, when he began studying cultural anthropology. He found a mentor within the department, Dr. Brian Campbell, and things took off from there.
Bennett remembers, “He taught me to garden. That was the most important thing anyone had every done for me up to that point – help me engage in the soil and flavors.” Bennett was able to get a student worker job with the title “organic gardener.” Basically, he worked in Dr. Campbell’s garden seed-saving project, taking extensive log notes and learning all he could about the process.
He keeps that knowledge with him, especially when he plans out his own gardens. If you want to see the definition of extensive, ask him to share his garden log with you. Part of the fun, he says, is experimenting and trying for new flavors. “I’m kind of a flavor connoisseur in a way,” he says, “that’s why I grow heirlooms, save the seeds, and experiment.”
After college Bennett moved to Little Rock, continued to garden, and began working with Whole Foods. He immediately felt at home in the capital city. “I like Little Rock a lot. … I love the culture of the city, and I think there’s a lot of opportunity here. This is where you can change the world in a way. In a capital city, you can engage people in the government … so it makes sense that if you want to change Arkansas that you do it from here,” he explains.
Bennett’s attention to the loss of Arkansas foodways, the trend in the country after World War II to stop producing local produce, plus his own love of gardening and local food, eventually lead him to start up Garden Press, a juicing business. Although he sold the company in 2015, his entrepreneurial foray exhibits one of his core beliefs – getting people involved with local, organic food.
One of the main reasons for starting the endeavor, he says, is because, “Little Rock didn’t have anything like it at the time.” Plus, by then Bennett knew most of the local farmers within the food circuit and wanted to be involved in change.
While he was juicing for Garden Press, he shared space in the Loblolly kitchen, which at the time also included Flyway Brewing in their early stages.
He says, “That was the most fun I’ve ever had in the food industry – working with Sally, Matt Foster, and Dan. … They were critical to me actually starting up the business.”
While he worked hard to get Garden Press off the ground, his next venture practically fell into his lap, and he found himself at Bernice Garden as the farmer’s market manager.
His main goal was to provide more culture to the market. “I booked musicians, I brought in food trucks, Stone’s Throw’s beer. All those things were huge to me because I was trying to create a culture around the growers, a reason for people to stand around and buy more vegetables,” he says.
His hope is to shape the Bernice Garden Farmer’s Market into a model, so that other markets can follow suit.
Currently, Bennett works at Little Rock Tomato, a distribution service for local produce and more. Keep your eye on him, though, he’s always got ideas for the future of how he can help more people.
In the meantime, he works hard to support all-things-local, especially when it comes to eating out. “Rule number one is never eat, ever again, in a big box corporate restaurant. If there were local eater commandments, that would be commandment number five.”
If you ask Bennett what he’d like to see more of in Little Rock, the conversation shifts to urban farms. “That’s what Little Rock needs to define itself as,” he says.
Next time you see Bennett enjoying coffee at Mylo Coffee Co. or hanging out at one of the local food markets, ask him about gardening and local food. He sees the future as a bright one for Rock City – “We have a great canvas here to paint on … My part in that is trying to create systems that are new, creative and democratic, and ultimately help people.”