A profile on Michael Kelly – Writer, Founder of GIY (Grow It Yourself), Speaker, Hacker Grower
When did you first become interested inand growing your own ?
I worked in the corporate world for 10 years, as a writer in IT. I also wrote a health, food and lifestyle column for The Irish Times Magazine so I have always been interested in food and health.
I moved to Dunmore East in Waterford in search of the good life. My “road to Damascus moment” came when I found myself looking at Chinese in a supermarket and thinking about how far it had travelled. I decided to have a go at growing my own and it all started from there really. It was quite easy to become self sufficient with something like so I wondered what else I could try.
You founded GIY (Grow It Yourself) in 2009. How did that all come about?
While living in Waterford in 2008, I was looking for a local gardening group to join. There were plenty of plant and flower clubs but I was more interested in growing and there was nothing like that so I decided to start one myself. It all started quite casually but it spread virally and people started ringing me looking for advice and so GIY was born. About a year in, it attracted funding. Having a writing and marketing background helped but what started as a bit of fun quickly grew into a business.
You describe yourself as a “hacker grower”. What exactly is a hacker grower?
“Hacker grower” is a term I use to describe my level of experience at growing – not a beginner, not an expert but somewhere in between. It’s about being an amateur but being willing to get stuck in and having a can-do attitude. People can find growing a bit daunting, with all the Latin plant names and a certain amount of snootiness that goes along with it. In the media and on gardening shows it’s all perfect and pristine. I wanted to make it more accessible and fun and encourage people to give it a go. It’s about bringing people along on the journey with me rather than talking down to them.
How does GIY work?
GIY all started with setting up groups in different areas. We identified and supported local “champions” to start up a groups in their own local areas. We then applied the model to other settings like schools, community gardens, NGO food growing initiatives, health charities and probation services. Our role is to support communities in their growing ambitions. We also work to broaden awareness of growing generally in places like schools and workplaces.
At the moment there are about 1,500 individual nodes in the network. Groups vary widely in terms of size and in terms of make-up. We have very big and very small groups and we have groups in a variety of settings, like schools, workplaces and community gardens. There is sometimes an element of product bartering and we have forums, where people can give support and share the best ideas between groups.
Withhealth and probation settings among your groups, do you think that there is a therapeutic benefit to growing your own ?
Yes, definitely. I think that growing fulfills a deeper evolutionary need – in today’s society most people have lost that connection with the earth. It’s a profound connection when it happens and it’s easy to get back. Mindfulness, meditation and yoga are well known as ways to relax and de-. I think that growing does the same thing.
How does someone go about setting up a GIY group in their own community?
From when someone first approaches us about starting a group, it can take 2 to 3 months to get it going. We offer resources, kits, advice and a mentor to each group and help to get it off the ground. This year we’ve got 65,000 people growing for the first time so that’s pretty exciting.
What are thebenefits of growing your own ?
We are all becoming increasingly obsessed with and the in but we neglect to really think about the in particular fruit and vegetables. Take that have been grown in the same field for 20 years compared to a that has been grown fresh this year – what is the difference? When you grow yourself you see how hard it is to replace the in soil, you appreciate the difference in flavor and you realise just how shoddy produce that comes from the commercial food chain actually is. Sweetcorn is a good example of this – as soon as it is picked the sugars start turning into starch and the sweetness goes so it needs to be cooked and eaten right away. Once you experience the taste difference between supermarket produce and the you grow yourself there’s no going back.
You get more connected with yourby growing some of it yourself and you can understand how works from start to finish. Even if you just grow 5% of your , it gets you thinking about the other 95%.
Growing also gives you a better understanding of seasonality and you get a real appreciation of flavor by eating when it’s at its most . If you see in the supermarket off season it’s either grown somewhere else or sprayed with something to keep it from rotting. I don’t eat in February or March – I wait until they are at their best.
Basically nature knows best and there is a natural cycle of , based on what our bodies need. Vibrant spring greens are great for boosting your metabolism. Summer fruit like and vegetables like keep you hydrated. Ripe autumn berries are full of vitamin C to fight off colds as we come into the winter and then it’s time for , parsnips and starchy root crops for warming stews. In the supermarket there are no seasons. is imported from all around the world and there is very little left in it by the time it reaches us.
GIY must be a very useful way to get children interested inand eating more healthily. How do kids respond to it?
Getting kids involved in growing makes them eat stuff they wouldn’t normally eat. Many kids today don’t even understand that peas come from a plant so it’s all about building their understanding of .
We spend lots of time and money getting kits out to schools. We often partner with corporates like Innocent. This year we supplied 20,000 kits to over 650 schools. We start with simple seed growing exercises like growing a plant in a disposable coffee cup and this can extend to something bigger like a school garden. It is designed to be accessible to schools of all sizes so anybody can try it. The feedback from teachers is fantastic and they have found that the self-esteem of marginalised kids is greatly increased by growing food.
This all started out as a personal journey. What made you want to spread the word?
There’s no zealot like a convert, as they say. My background in marketing was about selling an idea. I’m still selling an idea, just a different one and one that I’m passionate about.
GIY started in Ireland and has now spread to other countries. Do you see a wider audience for it?
GIY is starting to spread to the UK and other countries and we would love it to spread worldwide. We have made the model as replicable as possible. We’ve still got plenty more to do in Ireland in terms of helping to create the demand and increase the awareness but we are looking at how best to manage that growth.
Your latest book “Grow, Cook,” (2014) was very well received.
What was it all about and why do you think it was so successful?
Grow, Cook, was my third book and it’s a how-to guide to growing. I tried to make it less a gardening book and more a growing book. I laid it out by month to incorporate seasonality. It also includes a element, with recipes from well-known chefs. It has a good crossover appeal between gardening and . All the proceeds go back into helping GIY.
So, what’s next for GIY?
Well Grow HQ, our new food education centre, is opening in the middle of next year. It’s a place where people can learn how to grow , cook and healthy so that’s what keeps me awake at night.
Where do you see the future of the food industry?
I see massive changes coming down the line for the food industry. This endless growth, high yield model is fundamentally an unstable house of cards. I think that we will look back on the last 50 years as a blip where we became obsessed with chemicals. The future is small, local and seasonal.
What advice would you give to people embarking on a career in the area of food and?
Follow your dreams. Life is short. Don’t be afraid to try and make mistakes. Just go do it.