Cafe Society

GrowHaus founder Adam Brock weighs in on permaculture elitism

Adam Brock The GrowHaus 4751 York Street 720-515-4751

This is part two of my interview with Adam Brock, founder of the GrowHaus; part one of my chat with Brock ran yesterday.

What do you grow at the GrowHaus? Mostly leafy greens and herbs like lettuce, kale, cilantro, bok choy and basil. We have a commercial aquaponics farm run by Colorado Aquaponics, which uses the waste from tilapia and other kinds of fish to fertilize the greens. We're also just starting to build some tropical permaculture systems in the education space, so we'll be growing things like passion fruit, bananas and ginger -- but not on a commercial scale. A lot of the ingredients in our food boxes come from outside the GrowHaus, but we buy from local farmers whenever we can.

See also: Adam Brock, founder of the GrowHaus, on permaculture, food boxes and modern-day agriculture

Where in Denver do you sell your produce? You can find our lettuce and other leafy greens at Marczyk's and several Whole Foods in the area. We also sell to a few restaurants on a regular basis.

How does your organization meet the goals of the underserved Elyria-Swansea neighborhood in which you serve -- a neighborhood that you've described as a "food desert?" Yeah, Elyria-Swansea is a really complicated place. It's appalling how much folks here have had to put up with over the decades, but it's also inspiring how they've managed to thrive despite all of the challenges. Rather than coming up with our own ideas of what we think the neighborhood needs, we'd rather help empower them to create a stronger community for themselves. We've known a lot of residents for years now, and we're working to bring more and more residents onto our staff and board of directors and help them gain whatever skills they need to be leaders in our organization and the neighborhood as a whole.

What's your definition of a food desert? Any community where you can't access the food you need to have a balanced diet. What are the biggest challenges of providing food to your neighborhood community? It varies. For some folks in Elyria-Swansea, the biggest barrier is knowledge -- they don't know what "organic" means, or why it's healthier. For others, it's all about time. They'd love to eat healthier, but are working so hard just to get by that they can't find the time to cook. And there's just a lot of momentum for doing things the way that's comfortable. It's like, "You guys want us to buy our food where? And cook it how?"

What are the most pressing regulatory hurdles? There are hurdles with zoning and permits, there are food safety and department of health regulations, and there are USDA and Colorado Department of Agriculture regulations. Fortunately, we have allies in all those places that have been really supportive at walking us through the process and making sure we're doing things by the book.

You obviously provide nutritional sustainability for your residents. Are there any other programs, skill sets or opportunities that you offer to empower them? Absolutely. Even more than wanting nutritious food, we hear over and over that good jobs are a top priority for residents, so a big part of our vision is to create jobs -- not just hire residents at the GrowHaus, but incubate a whole ecosystem of food-based businesses that are run by residents. It's going be a long process, but we're starting this fall with a ten-week microfarm training program for residents. It's kind of a mix of urban farming 101 and business planning 101.

What kind of commitments, if any, do you expect from the residents in return for what you provide to them? Not many, really, except for an open mind. We want to make what we offer as commitment-free as possible; we want it to be a no-brainer.

There's a degree of elitism associated with permaculture. How do you address those claims? Yeah, it sucks. A lot of old-time permaculturalists didn't do a very good job of acknowledging the many indigenous practices that influenced their work, and most opportunities to learn permaculture are still only accessible to folks with a lot of money and free time. The result is a pretty white/wealthy movement at this point, with all the blind spots that the elitism entails. Of course, we're trying to do it a little differently at GrowHaus. We run our course on weekends to make it accessible to working folks, and we go out of our way to offer scholarships to emerging leaders from historically marginalized communities. In terms of the class itself, we try to teach people that you don't need a bunch of land -- you don't even need a small back yard -- to be a permaculturalist. Anybody can use permaculture techniques to heal their environments and their communities.

I've heard you refer to the issue of "food justice." What is that, exactly? I think a lot of people understand by now that the way we're growing and selling and eating food in this country -- it's just not working for most of us. Food justice is about reshaping our food system to promote well-being for all the people involved in it. It means ensuring that healthy food is available to everyone who wants it, which is part of our work at GrowHaus. It also means that all the workers involved in the food system are paid well and treated fairly; that's what the recent fast-food workers' strikes are about, and what groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are fighting for.

What's the next evolution of permaculture -- and permaculture economics? Permaculture is killing it in Denver right now. It's just been growing exponentially. Permaculture landscaping is starting to be a thing for homeowners who are sick of their lawns, and bioregional cuisine is starting to interest chefs who want to take locality to the next level. In the next few years, we're going to start seeing more demonstration sites pop up and some really innovative businesses based around permaculture principles. Groups like the Handmade Homemade Market and the Mile High Business Alliance are paving the way in creating the framework for a truly local economy, creating whole new industries around this stuff. There are also some complementary currencies set to launch here soon, which would be a huge step in realigning our economy with reality.

Where have permaculture principles been most active at the GrowHaus? It's interesting, because it's actually been less about the way we grow food, and more about the way we structure our business and work with our community. In permaculture lingo, we call that stuff the "invisible structures." We're actually starting to incorporate permaculture into the physical structures, and there are some really cool passive heating technologies and indoor food forests we'll be installing this year.

How do people integrate permaculture into their own lives? One of my permaculture mentors likes to say, "You don't do permaculture; you use it in what you do." Whatever you love doing, whatever you're good at, permaculture design gives you a framework for doing it in a way that's ecologically and socially responsible -- and in a way that's self-maintaining and resilient, like an ecosystem. You can use it to garden, of course, and you can use it to launch a business. You can use it for personal goals and life planning. I know couples that have even used it to work through relationship issues.

How are our ecological design systems different in Denver compared to elsewhere, especially considering our erratic climate and short growing season? They're totally different. We don't live in a climate like California, where a lot of our produce comes from, so if we try to grow the same kind of food that grows well in California, we're going to be working against nature -- and working harder than we need to. Permaculture is all, like, "Hold up! What actually wants to grow here in Denver? What food crops actually thrive here? And how can we create edible ecosystems out of those species?" There are all these really delicious plants -- sunchokes, seaberries, ground cherries, sorrel, prickly pear cactus -- none of which are grown here on a commercial scale. That's what permaculture can offer in this kind of climate.

You work closely with EatDenver, a local nonprofit that's a coalition of independent restaurants, and one of the group's yearly events, Harvest Week, takes place at the GrowHaus this month. How did that relationship come to fruition? I'm pretty sure it was another Paul Tamburello connection. Paul is one of the people behind Root Down and Linger, so he's really in touch with the restaurant scene. When EatDenver was looking for places to host Harvest Week a few years back, Paul suggested the GrowHaus, and it just seemed like a natural fit.

What's the long-term vision of the GrowHaus? It's pretty simple, actually: Help communities across the Front Range develop the means to nourish themselves.

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Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson