Ben's Origins

Born in 1987 to Scott and Donna Samuelson in Austin Texas, Ben is reported to have made his first harvest before he could walk — it was basil.  Later, he has memories of standing on his dad's shoulders to grab the tallest pole beans on their bamboo trellis.  Ben continued to grow edible plants and get into other projects of cooking, concocting, building, and tinkering.  The pleasure of nonlinear creation is Ben's muse.

In the spring of 2000, Ben sneaked several 2 gallon pots on to the roof and planted watermelons up there. When his mom discovered the project, she anticipated problematic elements that Ben had not considered (something to do with compromising important water-excluding properties of the roof).  Rather than discourage Ben’s inclination to grow melons, she rented a community garden plot for him that summer. The melons didn’t do well, but four giant pumpkins came off that plot, which became countless pumpkin pies.  This was the beginning of Ben’s passion for growing squash, especially squash of a sprawling vining habit. 

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Through Ben's undergraduate experience in Arkansas at Hendrix college, he had the chance to create and connect in all of his favorite ways.  He organized the student garden for several years and hosted weekly shabbat dinners during his senior year at his residence "the Ecohouse" -- a memorable and meaningful tradition.  He discovered that creating space for connection between friends would join gardening as essential work.

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Ben, his housemates, and several overlapping circles of friends would pull together to cover the table with freshly baked bread, jugs of wine, and food (always with a little something from the garden).  These mostly non-Jewish friends would light the candles and bless the wine and bread together.  After the blessings, a practice called "checking in" helped set this time apart from the week before.  With candles glowing and wine in hand, each of up to 18 people crowded around the table would speak how they were feeling in the moment while everyone else gave their full attention, resisting the inclination to figure out what to say when it was their turn.  Ben found a deep satisfaction in creating the atmosphere of security and bonding that he remembers from his childhood shabbats dinners - just Scott Donna and little Ben.  

Regulars of the Ecohouse shabbat still cherish the memories of those evenings.  Here's snippet from a recent email between Ben and Katie Rice-Guter, one of those regulars who at the time of writing happens to have just yesterday finalized her conversion to Judaism (as Ben's mother did more than 30 years ago).  "I didn't realize your mom converted. You have always seemed very naturally confident and at home in Jewish life -- I'm thinking specifically of the Eco House Shabbat dinners, which were so warm and welcoming. All of my Shabbat plans always aspire to the nonchalant awesomeness of those Eco House Shabbats. It's great to hear how self-assured your mom was and how she passed that along to you."

On the subject of Ben's Mom and Dad, they show constant patience, humor, and kindness to Ben and everyone else.  Ben and his older brother Jude are enduringly grateful for the bright points of light that are Scott and Donna Samuelson, notably for their role as grandparents to Jude's children.

The roof watermelons pivoting to a community garden plot is one of many examples of their tactful and creative encouragement, but it doesn't capture their calculated fortitude to have let Ben explore, tinker, and generally follow unconventional paths.  They taught Ben by example how to eat well and celebrate friendship. There they are (Donna and Betsy in the background) in the summer garden pictured at right.

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Ben's love for growing, cooking, and sharing food opened a door to eight months of independent international travel and study made possible by the Walker Odyssey Fellowship where he investigated the question; "what happens when people make a business around a heritage food product which was traditionally made in and for the family unit."  He then tutored chemistry at Austin Community College for a while before joining the Fall '12 Adamah fellowship Cohort, then the Aleghenny Mountain Institute cohort of '13/'14.  

 View of the VSDB farm early in its first summer.  One year prior to the time of this photograph, this all was a large gravel parking lot.  Ben and the team grew over 5000 pounds of produce that year (including over 1000 pounds of winter squash).

View of the VSDB farm early in its first summer.  One year prior to the time of this photograph, this all was a large gravel parking lot.  Ben and the team grew over 5000 pounds of produce that year (including over 1000 pounds of winter squash).

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Ben was interested in garden-based education, using gardens as classrooms.  He helped establish the urban farm at the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind in Staunton, VA while he was an AMI fellow.  Unfortunately the industry of experiential education in school gardens is not developing rapidly, so Ben pivoted and decided to build upon his Biology background.  He was inspired by the work of soil biologist Dr. Elaine Ingham and decided that if some portion of her message was possible — that ecological restoration can be achieved through non-toxic agricultural management — he had to learn everything he could from her.  He studied her online resources while starting another teaching farm at Herzl Camp, a Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin, and then moved out to Dr. Ingham's research farm in the Sierras near Chico, CA where he worked and lived.  

It was during this time that he met Betsy, who would lead him back to her unlikely homeland of Nebraska.  Ben was mostly pleasantly surprised by the redeeming qualities of Nebraska, he worked for a large scale compost operation and was then hired as a research assistant in the Samuel Wortman laboratory at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln where he is currently one year from earning his M.S. in Horticulture with a focus on soil microbiology.

Ben is deeply satisfied to have found a partner in Betsy who shares the belief that there is a power in growing and sharing food which goes beyond feeding the body.

 This is Ben's favorite style of garden cart, pictured in action in Virginia.  A wedding gift of liquid assets will pay for such a cart.

This is Ben's favorite style of garden cart, pictured in action in Virginia.  A wedding gift of liquid assets will pay for such a cart.