This is part one of my interview with Adam Brock, founder of the GrowHaus; part two of my chat with Brock will run tomorrow.
Growing up, I couldn't have cared less about cooking food, much less growing food," says Adam Brock. "My parents definitely encouraged me to get into food -- we even had a huge garden in the back yard -- but I was like, whatever, who cares? I was more into stuff like making music, longboarding and design -- but not ecological design," he admits.
What a difference a decade makes.
Brock left his home town of Denver to attend college in New York, and that's where everything changed.
"I discovered ecological design at NYU, and it just clicked for me, so much so that I really started to question where my food was coming from and how the industrial food system works," explains Brock, adding that he realized the "system was broken, so it was important to look for alternatives that made us healthier and solved other problems, like climate change, biodiversity loss and providing jobs for inner-city people."
He returned to Denver after graduation, and in 2009 he and his best friend, Coby Gould, opened the GrowHaus, an indoor farm, market and classroom that provides food to the underserved Elyria-Swansea neighborhood in north Denver. "I was born and raised here in Denver, and my identity is completely wrapped up in being nourished by this city and giving back to it," he says, "and when I got back to Denver, I just went deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole."
The GrowHaus, a nonprofit that now employs three full-time employees and five part-time employees, also utilizes the skills of the community it serves, empowering residents by giving them leadership roles and volunteer opportunities -- a crucial component of the GrowHaus. "It's definitely been a long process, and it's taken a lot of time to build trust -- to prove to this neighborhood that we have their best interests in mind -- but by giving back to them, by taking the time to prove that we're really here to make this a healthier community both in terms of food and building jobs, we've had a lot of neighborhood advocates who have come on board to help us," Brock says. The GrowHaus offers everything from hands-on volunteer work and a "farmer-in-training" program to "seed-to-seed" summer leadership courses for teens who want to learn more about building -- and sustaining -- healthy communities.
"We're always trying to push the permaculture values of taking care of our community, taking care of the ecosystems around us, making sure we have long-term sustainability and redistributing what we have to whomever needs it the most rather than hoarding it for ourselves," explains Brock. "This is a place where the rules of the rat race and the dog-eat-dog world don't apply. This is about people from everywhere coming together to put their best foot forward to nourish a community on all different levels. You walk in here and just feel it."
And from September 22 through September 27, anyone in Denver can experience the community camaraderie of the GrowHaus, when the facility, bedecked with twinkling white lights, becomes center stage for Harvest Week, a series of themed pop-up dinners and one brunch that spotlight ingredients, wines, spirits and beers that are grown -- and made -- in Colorado. There's even a vegetarian-only dinner, most of the ingredients for which will be unearthed from the GrowHaus. The week-long event is the brainchild of EatDenver, a coalition of local, independently owned restaurants (menus and reservations are available at eatdenver.com/harvest-week-2013).
"You can expect thousands of pristine heads of lettuce, happy tilapia, hand-painted and repurposed stuff everywhere, papaya trees, costumes and, of course, some outrageously amazing dishes," says Brock, who in the following interview weighs in on his relationships with local chefs and farmers, the issue of "food justice" and the elitism that's often associated with permaculture.
You spent several years living in New York. What brought you back to Denver? New York was amazing. I've always thrived off the energy of that city, and living in New York really helped me get my act together professionally, but after five years there, it still never really felt like home. When it came down to it, I realized that I needed the balance between city and nature, between work and fun, which we Denverites do so well. By the end, I was living a Denver lifestyle and paying New York rent. It didn't add up, so I left.
What fueled your interest in permaculture? I first learned about permaculture during a semester at the Ecosa Institute in Arizona. It just snapped everything into place for me, and gave me the framework for understanding and acting on all the different things that I'd been starting to learn about. I took a permaculture design course my last semester of college, and from there I was off and running.
How did you first become involved with the GrowHaus? Honestly, it was one of those right-place-right-time kinda things. Ashara Ekundayo and Kendra Sandoval, who were trailblazers in Denver's food-justice community, were trying to purchase the old Lehrer's greenhouse to start a growing power-style project in Denver. They made the case to Paul Tamburello, a developer and a visionary, who took a leap of faith and bought it, but he needed someone to actually make the whole thing happen, which was where I came in. I was introduced to Paul through Dana Miller, who's Denver's urban-ag network-weaver extraordinaire. Soon after that, I brought in my best friend, Coby Gould, to help out, mostly because our skills complemented each other's really well. Now he's our executive director, and I'm the director of operations.
What kinds of obstacles did you encounter trying to get it to take root? Oh, man, all kinds. I mean, the building was a total mess when we started -- too dark to grow anything, trash everywhere, no ventilation -- so we had to learn how big greenhouses worked, how to raise money to get it renovated, how to be a general contractor and how to manage volunteers. There was this whole nonprofit world to learn, which none of us really knew anything about, not to mention the internal journeys we all went through to check our own privilege and learn how to act in solidarity with the community around us. Those were some of the biggest challenges.
How has the model of the GrowHaus evolved over the years? From day one, we all knew it would involve a combination of commercial-scale food production, classes centered around growing and nutrition, and ways to get healthy food to our neighbors at prices they could afford. But our strategies for achieving each of those things have evolved a ton over the years. With the distribution goal, for example, we were originally going to turn the whole front space into a market, but then we realized how complicated that would be in terms of fundraising, regulations, management, etc., so we started looking at all these innovative food retail projects in similar communities across the country, and we hit upon this model of the weekly food box, the idea of which is to get all of your vegetable produce, fruit, grains, bread and eggs for the week at a great price. It was flexible and easy to start small and scale up quickly, so that became the new strategy.
Can you tell us more about the food boxes? We launched a program in February called Mercado de al lado -- it means "your market next door" -- and every week, we put together a "basic" food box, or a "family" food box of fresh and seasonal produce and fruit, plus eggs, grains, bread and more for our neighbors. It's $20 a week for the "family" box and $12 for the "basic" box, and local companies, including Bluepoint Bakery and High Plains Food Co-Op, donate many of the items, and all the leafy greens come from here. The program has really started to pick up over the past few months, and people outside of the neighborhood can also buy the food boxes for a bit more money and pick them up here every week.
How do you subsidize -- and sustain -- the GrowHaus's financial solvency? When Ashara was still in Denver, she had this tongue-in-cheek phrase: "One for the money, two for the 'hood." I think she got it from author and chef Bryant Terry, and now I borrow it to describe our strategy for financial sustainability. With our lettuce, our classes, our food boxes -- all of it, really -- we charge a higher price for what we're offering to folks that can afford it, which allows us to offer the same stuff to our neighbors for free or cheap. It won't ever make us rich, but we think we can cover about two-thirds of our budget that way.
I know you try to keep your costs as low as possible. How do you manage to do that? By incorporating lots of little things. We're really intentional about using reclaimed materials for construction, for example, and trying out cutting-edge heating and cooling technology to keep our utility bills low. We have an incredible network of volunteers and interns who offer their skills for free, and we're fortunate to get regular donations from some amazing companies that support our mission: Bluepoint Bakery, Raquelitas Tortillas, General Hydroponics and Circle Fresh Farms, to name a few.
How do you compete with the big-box stores like Walmart -- a mega-chain that advertises low prices and caters to low-income residents? Like any business, it comes down to stuff like convenience, quality and, of course, cost. Our imperative is to offer our neighbors better-tasting ingredients than Walmart for less money -- and to save them a trip to Commerce City by bringing the food to where they live.
What does it mean to be a modern-day agriculturist? It means committing to a long-term connection with the land you're growing on, and with the community you're growing for; it means getting really creative about bringing modern technology and modern style to this timeless art of sustaining ourselves; and unfortunately, it generally means working really hard for very little money. But it's all good, because you end up becoming wealthy in all sorts of other ways.
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Is it just a trend, or do you think it has staying power? Honestly, some of it probably is a trend. There's a lot of pretentiousness in this whole scene that I could do without, you know? People totally romanticize farming these days, and lots of folks don't have the -- what's it called? -- the gumption to put in the hard work it takes to actually grow food, so that hipness is bound to fade, which is fine with me. At the same time, though, there are so many unsung heroes that are really doing it with integrity -- so many people working their asses off to figure out new business models, test new crops, new ways of feeding ourselves locally and strengthening the community in the process. Those folks are going to be our saving grace; they're the future.
How do you see this movement co-existing with growers and farmers on a much larger scale? What, like old-school farmers out on the plains? They totally have a role to play in all this. Technically, it's probably possible to grow all of our food in the city, but I don't think we should aim for that. We need to repopulate our rural areas, as well, and we need to rethink our national farm policy to incentivize large-scale farmers to use less water, fewer pesticides, and to grow crops that actually nourish people instead of getting turned into biofuel or corn syrup or whatever. Right now, it's downright scary what's going on out there, and I don't think most farmers are any happier about it than we are.
What's your relationship with local farmers, chefs and restaurants? Supporting local farmers is so important. We have pretty tight overhead for our food boxes, but we're committed to paying our local suppliers enough to earn a living wage. The urban-agriculture community in Denver is growing quickly, but we're still a pretty tight group and support each other's efforts whenever we can. As for chefs, I think a lot of them -- like many of us -- have a growing desire to know where their ingredients come from and connect with the source. We love bringing chefs to our farm and chatting with them about the growing techniques. I think that knowledge really helps them prepare their ingredients with more integrity.
How do you engage others in the Denver community to become involved in the GrowHaus? Man, there are so many ways to plug in at this point. We're just about to launch a membership club called Tambien for folks who want to be involved and support our work on a regular basis. You can buy food boxes online at mercadolado.org, which are still a great deal even at the non-resident price. We have regular volunteer opportunities on Wednesday and Friday mornings, and a kick-ass internship program for people who want to get more in-depth. Oh, and our next permaculture design course is starting up in just a few weeks, which people tend to find kind of life-changing. Just sayin'.