Meet Our Team!
As a native of Blacksburg, Ben Harder started Den Hill Farm and Fungi (previously Den Hill Permaculture) with his wife, Jackie, in 2012 as he worked on completing his degree in Environmental Horticulture and Civic Agriculture from Virginia Tech. Our farm is founded on the principles of permaculture, which is a sustainable ecological design system with a philosophy of working with, rather than against, nature. Ben has taken many ideas and techniques from permaculture practices and is applying them to a farm scale. In addition to permaculture, Ben combines several farming principles into our operation, including: biodynamic farming, intercropping and farmscaping.
Ben was initially introduced to mushroom growing in 2014, when an Appalachian Trail hiker stopped by the farmers market selling shiitake mushroom logs to earn money for his trip. With the logs already fruiting, Ben was instantly enamored by the fact that each had dozens of beautiful plump mushrooms growing on them. As someone who loved to eat mushrooms, this experience instantly inspired Ben to learn more and try growing them! You know that feeling when you try something new and it feels like it was something you were always meant to do? That was what Ben felt for growing mushrooms. In the years to follow, Ben and the team at Den Hill then explored growing shiitake, oyster and wine cap mushrooms using low tech backyard methods. Reaching the limits on these production techniques, Ben designed and launched a climate controlled fruiting chamber and spawn production lab to expand the variety and quantities of mushrooms they could produce.
Amelia Empson has been passionate about fungi, plants, and all living things her whole life, but found her stride in working with them for a living in 2021 at Den Hill Farm and Fungi. Her farm focus is on mushroom genetics and expanding them into usable cultures, brewing and flavoring kombucha and helping out in the greenhouses. Having grown up in Blacksburg, the farmer’s market and local food scene have always been important in her life, and farming is the perfect way to access the local-centric culture, and getting to spend her days outside.
Aside from farm work, Amelia enjoys creating art in all forms, from playing and writing music, to dyeing clothes, and painting (mostly paintings of mushrooms). She and her partner, Jeremiah, spend lots of their free time outdoors fishing and foraging, enjoying the beautiful Appalachian Mountains they call home, and getting out to see local music whenever possible.
A native of Floyd and Montgomery counties, Darrell leads and manages the vegetable production on the farm. He was a professional chef until 2019, when he first joined Den Hill to learn a new trade. Since then he has developed a passion for community-scale organic agriculture. When he is not working (and also when he is working), he immerses himself in books, podcasts, and online resources, drawing knowledge and inspiration from a wide range of sources - from the techniques of Eliot Coleman, to the work of Dr Christine Jones, to the philosophy of Masanobu Fukuoka.
His farming ethos is based on encouraging a healthy and diverse ecology. He focuses on nourishing the microbiology of soils, attracting beneficial insects, bees, and birds with flowers and native plants, and interplanting different families of crops to maximize their individual contributions to the overall system. And, of course, he shuns the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. With his culinary background, he sets high standards for quality control, produce handling, and presentation. He also loves to get nerdy about seed varieties!
Rai works across the whole lifecycle of growing mushrooms at Den Hill Farm and Fungi. He helps with preparation of the media that the mushrooms grow on, harvesting, recycling used media and building up our vermiculture compost system, and inoculation.
Rai has been interested in wildlife since he was little, but had not put much thought about fungi until he decided to read a book named In Search of Mycotopia: Citizen Science, Fungi Fanatics, and the Untapped Potential of Mushrooms by Doug Bierend. After that, he was hooked and decided that he wanted to learn more about them. He read more books about them, watched videos, and attended a few meetings of the New River Valley Mushroom Club. Eventually, he decided that he wanted to start volunteering at Den Hill Farm and Fungi and started in early 2022.
When he is not on the farm, he listens to music, does schoolwork, reads books, and, on occasion, makes music. He is very interested in beetles, fungi, and toki pona and likes to learn more about them.