Shared from the 3/10/2019 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette NW eEdition

Don Bennett

Growing the future





“THE BEAUTY OF TRI CYCLE, and Don’s approach to education, is that it connects with people where they are. For some folks, it’s news that a potato grows underground and not on a tree. Tri Cycle provides a space for those folks to discover and at the same time allows university-level engineers to learn and grow, too.” — Sarah King

Tri Cycle Farms — a nonprofit organization that seeks to help solve food insecurity issues in Northwest Arkansas — was born in the backyard of a friend of Don Bennett’s, the farm’s founder and executive director. Bennett had gone to see his friend to thank her for referring him for a job he had landed. When he arrived, his normally upbeat, energetic friend was clearly struggling emotionally.

“Her dishes were piled up in the sink, and her laundry was piled up, and that wasn’t like her at all,” he recalls. “I said, ‘What’s wrong? Are you sick?’ She said, ‘No, Don Bennett, I don’t know what I’m going to eat next week. I’ve got two jobs, I’ve been looking for a third job to fit in with those two, and I just can’t manage that.’ I said, ‘Who is supposed to be able to manage three jobs?’”

Bennett was no stranger to struggle: Just a year before, after his second DWI in a short span of time, Bennett had finally confronted the fact that he was an alcoholic and began the long road toward recovery. In the midst of that recovery, he lost his long-term job at a local hardware store, and, because he was riding a bicycle — the DWIs meant no driver’s license — finding another job was a difficult and frustrating process.

But despite his own struggles, the idea that someone might still be hungry after working two jobs was a punch to his gut. He says it was his first introduction to a sort of social privilege — the idea that those without any kind of social safety net were in much more tenuous circumstances than someone who had family and friends to fall back on.

“One of the statistics that has blown my mind since then is that something like 62 percent of people have less than $1,000 in their bank accounts,” he says. “Any set back, anything at all can be devastating, especially if there’s no one to throw a net out for them. And not everyone is privileged enough to have a net. The latest call [Tri Cycle Farms] got was about a single mother with four children — all of the kids got sick with the flu at the same time. She couldn’t go to work. Melissa Terry called me and said, ‘Can you help?’ These problems are complex, but really simple at their heart: If someone is drowning, you throw them a lifeline.

“One of [Don’s] favorite things to share with people is the story of mycelium, a hidden network of fungus that spreads through healthy soils, sharing nutrients with all the organisms it connects. It’s a pretty magical idea. I tell Don that he’s like mycelium, connecting so many different people and helping them to thrive in the community.”
— Sarah King

“Everyone says, ‘quality jobs, quality jobs,’ and I say, ‘No, someone has to shovel the sh*t, but they shouldn’t have to have three jobs while they do it.’”

Which brings him back to his friend and her backyard: Bennett thought he had a tangible way he could help.

“My suggestion to her was — and I knew it wasn’t going to help her tomorrow or next week, but — ‘You’ve got a great backyard. We should build a garden there.’”


Bennett was born in North Carolina in the 1960s, though he didn’t stay there long. His father was in the Army, serving in Korea and Vietnam and achieving one of the highest ranks noncommissioned officers could reach. As a result, the family moved a lot. By the time his father had retired, Bennett had lived in Indiana, New Jersey and South Carolina. The family settled in Hot Springs, his mother’s hometown, after his father’s retirement.

“We got about seven acres, and [my father] had a sort of hobby farm,” Bennett says. “I think when I was growing up, I didn’t realize — I’m not sure anyone did — how much he was looking for peace, how much the war had affected him, how difficult it was for him to get support from the Veterans Administration. He was one of the youngest command sergeant majors [in the war], was in charge of I guess, 5,000 men or so, and I’m sure that the fates of some of those men weighed heavy on him.” Bennett thinks the farm was a way for his father to work through some of the post-traumatic stress disorder from which Bennett now suspects his father suffered. “He got cows, geese, chickens, ducks, horses … he rebuilt an old house and pretty much taught me everything.

“I was a rebellious teen and told him one time, ‘The only thing you grow in that garden are rocks,’ because I was the designated rock picker-upper. He gave me 50 cents per five gallon buckets of rocks. I pretty much built a road with those rocks.”

In addition to his father’s garden, many of his Hot Springs relatives had extensive gardens. What those gardens taught Bennett was how to be self-reliant.

“We’ve got children raised in grocery stores and never in the garden,” he says. “That was something I had never experienced. There were gardens all around me. If the grocery store closed, my aunt and uncles would go down to their basements and pull out some great canned food. I didn’t realize how much it impacted me — all of this was like a distant memory — but I guess my education and my childhood had played a role in this.”

So he tapped into that experience and offered to help his friend build a garden. In the process, he had to be reacquainted with the knowledge childhood and college had instilled. He had studied landscape architecture in college, but life had taken him on a different adventure, which included owning a custom framing business and working as a substation maintenance technician for Ozarks Electric.

“We started discussing a garden, and the next day her house was tidy as a pin,” he remembers. “She said, ‘I’ve raided my cupboards, and I’ve cobbled together a pretty good dinner.’ I saw hopelessness one day, and I saw what hope was the next day.”

The pair decided to start the garden on April 1 and gave themselves until April 28 to get it done. By that time, the idea of a community farm helping to subsidize some of the food insecurity issues in Northwest Arkansas had taken hold of Bennett.

“I saw a picture of a barn in Amish country,” he says. “The women had spread a table out, and it was this incredible picture of all of these guys hanging off this barn and this food and these kids. I asked myself: ‘Why would everybody sign up to work on that barn?’ And I realized, ‘If one family failed, then the whole community failed.’”

He found two acres of land with a solidly built barn, asked his mother for funding help and had closed on the deal by August.

“On Sept. 9, I invited about 15 of my friends to come and hang out in the barn, and asked them, ‘What should this be?’” he remembers.

It sounds like a rapid-fire change of heart for Bennett — because it was. He admits that, up to that point, he had never felt a strong pull in one particular direction. His career trajectory had followed his father’s suggestion to be a “jack of all trades, master of none.” But after his encounter with his friend, he threw himself into research about poverty and food insecurity in Northwest Arkansas — and what he learned horrified him.

“I discovered that there were 30,000 people in Washington County that are food insecure, and then I found out that Arkansas, an agriculture state, has one in four kids who don’t know what they’re going to eat at night. I thought, ‘Who the hell are we feeding if we’re not feeding kids? What kind of future are we going to have if we don’t take care of people?’”


And the more he researched, the more it seemed to Bennett as though fate had steered him to that parcel of land on Garland Avenue in Fayetteville. Though he had long believed south Fayetteville to be the most food insecure area in the city, the 2010 Census information he was researching made it plain that he had decided to launch Tri Cycle Farms smack dab in the epicenter of those most needing assistance.

“I started looking at the neighborhood that Tri Cycle sits in the middle of,” he says. “Four square miles, bordered by Highway 71, I-49 wraps around the top and the University of Arkansas campus on another border. In those four square miles, there are 18,000 people, and out of those 18,000 people, 7,300 live below the federal poverty line. There are 1,000 kids living below the federal poverty line.

“And I’m thinking: ‘Where are our values?’ If we don’t value that a kid from 0 to 3 needs to get good, nutritional food in order to achieve, then how is this ‘The Land of Opportunity’? How is this ‘The Natural State’?”

Galvanized by his research and his determination that he could be part of the solution to this very real problem, Bennett threw himself into preparing the land he had purchased for planting. There was no lack of outside enthusiasm for his project, and help came from many different avenues. Contacts from his time at Ozarks Electric helped clear the land of brush, former Mayor Dan Coody used his tractor to help turn the soil, and dozens of fraternity brothers — some of whom lived in the little rock house next to where the farm was being planted — helped dismantle the huge mound of detritus left behind from the 2009 ice storm. Bennett’s close friends were also on hand to help wherever needed.

“On Oct. 30, we had 119 people on the farm, and the ‘farm raising’ began,” says Bennett with a smile. “It was just like the picture of the Amish barn raising. I was like, ‘It can work.’ I guess I felt like my dad. Not in terms of command, but in terms of strategy, and finding and placing leadership where it needed to be. We did an amazing amount of work in a very short amount of time.”

Someone set up a Face-book group for Bennett, and he began posting about the statistics he had uncovered and his ideas of how he could help.

“I made my first event post, for Potato Plant Day, in February of 2012,” he says. “Sixty people I didn’t even know showed up, and it wasn’t fraternity boys that needed to do community service. And I made friendships that have lasted until this day on that day. It showed me that there was something powerful happening.”

Bennett’s skill for outreach would become one of his most valuable assets. He says he started showing up for every event linked to poverty and food insecurity initiatives, forging friendships and partnerships that would help him further his mission. That’s how he ended up helping Trinity United Methodist Church, located right across the street from Tri Cycle, with its Sunday afternoon meal service. That’s how he helped the University of the Ozarks’ professor of environmental studies and sustainable agriculture, Kim Van Scoy, achieve the grant support necessary to start the state’s first sustainable agriculture program at the university level.

“Don has the ability to draw out the unique talents of the people he meets — it’s like the story of the stone soup that is re-enacted each year at Tri Cycle,” says Sarah King, who, as the manager of Specialized Real Estate Group’s volunteerism and philanthropy efforts, has coordinated volunteer events at Tri Cycle Farms. “Each person contributes a little, and the result is far beyond what anyone could have dreamed.”

When the University of Arkansas director of social innovation, Rogelio Garcia Contreras, contacted Bennett about becoming a community partner with the program, he enthusiastically signed on.

“He was always very open to work and partner and explore,” notes Contreras. “We launched the social innovation initiative almost as a pilot, and he was always very willing to support the process and engage with the students. He is, in that sense, like me — he is willing to try something different in order to foster innovation and creativity.”

But perhaps the most effective alliance Bennett made for the food insecure in Northwest Arkansas was the partnership he has with Whole Foods in Fayetteville.

“When it comes to food waste, it’s about awareness — I was blind to it,” he says. “Melissa Terry [food policy researcher at the University of Arkansas] says we waste 43 percent of our food before it ever hits the plate. All these resources going to agriculture, and we throw half of it away. That is a fundamental problem.”

A conversation with some executives of Whole Foods in the Tri Cycle garden gave Bennett an opportunity he could not pass up: He learned that Whole Foods was in the practice of letting local nonprofits pick up pallets of food that were past their sell-by dates, though one of the general managers Bennett was talking to admitted that it was often inconvenient for the store to do so due to inconsistency in pickups. Bennett told the manager that if they trusted Tri Cycle to pick up the food waste, he would promise to never miss an opportunity.

“We started in 2016,” he says. “I asked [the nonprofit organization] Seeds That Feed to come out there with us, and we picked up our first load. We were going to go two days a week, but that wasn’t enough, so we went three days a week in 2016 and 2017, and we never missed once.”

Bennett has a list of five or six area nonprofits to which he delivers the Whole Foods pallets. As a result of his outreach and determination to find organizations that need help, the food that he picks up on a daily basis changes lives in a wide swath of Fayetteville.

“You would think that 7hills [Homeless Center] gets all of these donations, but they do not,” he says. “There are some heroes over there, but when they don’t have the resources, then they have hungry people. So we started going there every Monday. Then we found a pantry at St. James Baptist Church, and we started going there on Tuesdays. We’ve always partnered with Seeds That Feed, so they go to retirement communities on Wednesdays. We made Food Corps part of our volunteer base to help [with deliveries], so they set aside things for their cooking classes so that kids are getting fresh fruit and smoothies. We made a partnership at Washington Elementary with Melissa Terry. She’s feeding 100 kids every afternoon on Thursdays, and she says that sometimes parents are even sitting down to eat.”

Bennett soon discovered that the food he could provide through food recovery efforts far outweighed what he could provide through Tri Cycle Farms.

“With food recovery, we shared 130,000 pounds of food because we went five days a week in 2018,” he says. “To compare that, we had our best growing season in the garden yet, and we shared 3,000 pounds of food from there.”


Still, says Bennett, the garden is important in many other ways. It’s a community gathering space. It’s an educational tool. It’s a demonstration as to how sustainable living can begin in our own backyards.

“It’s not necessarily a production garden,” says Bennett. “It’s subversive. We’re going to make you love the garden, and you’re going to come in and know that this could be right in your backyard. It’s about, ‘Look what beauty nature has.’ There’s not a chemical out here. Yes, we have bugs. We have butterflies. We have bumblebees and wasps. We teach about the pollinators — they’re so busy, they’re not stinging you. We teach about weeds that are medicinal in nature, that are healthy.”

It’s remarkable what Bennett has achieved in under a decade, especially considering the financial constraints the organization is under. Tri Cycle Farms operates on the most slim of budgets — Bennett himself subsists on around $600 a month — and with the boundless energy of a robust volunteer base that, Bennett says, has “exploded” over the past seven years. Local donors have been enormously generous: The farm was recently the recipient of a pickup truck and trailer, making food recovery and delivery efforts much less cumbersome. But Bennett hopes the future will hold more consistent funding that will help him offer a salary to several full-time positions. His imagination is bursting with ideas of future projects and possible expansion.

After all, for nearly a decade, he’s experienced the radical change of heart this work has effected in himself and others.

“I have learned so much that has nothing to do with food,” he says. “Connecting with people in that garden is powerful. People who are depressed are free in the garden. People who are angry are peaceful in the garden. Every single problem that we have in the whole world could be solved if we could just meet in the garden.”

Lara Jo Hightower can be reached by email at lhightower@



“Don is one of the most dedicated and determined people that I’ve ever met. A lot of times we describe people we admire as ‘tireless’. I wouldn’t call Don tireless — that dismisses the incredible amount of effort and heart that he puts in to Tri Cycle. I’ve seen him tired. This hasn’t been easy. Don’s not tireless, but he doesn’t quit, and I admire that so much.”

— Sarah King

“No matter the situation, I’ve always admired Don’s ability to reflect, learn and grow — personally and professionally. Our friendship has blossomed over the years, and we’ve spent a lot of time digging into the details, good and bad, of building an organization from the ground up. It can be thrilling and scary and, sometimes, full of discomfort, but Don never shrinks back from his mission.”

— Emily English, research director,

Access to Healthy Foods Research Group

at Arkansas Children’s Research Institute

“I believe that Tri Cycle has the potential to be one of the organizations that sets the example of what a structural solution to the issue [of food insecurity] could look like, because of the approach they have to the issue — in production, in education, in distribution, in waste management and recycling, all of these elements that are the cycle of food. I am convinced that Tri Cycle is a great example that could establish a framework for a collective strategy that could set up the foundation for a potential solution to the problem in a structural way.”

— Rogelio Garcia Contreras


Trish Roberson

Little Rock

See this article in the e-Edition Here