A profile on Michael Kelly – Writer, Founder of GIY (Grow It Yourself), Speaker, Hacker Grower
When did you first become interested in nutrition and growing your own food?
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 garlic in a supermarket and thinking about how far it had travelled. I decided to have a go at growing my own garlic and it all started from there really. It was quite easy to become self sufficient with something like garlic 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 food 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 food – 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, mental health charities and probation services. Our role is to support communities in their growing ambitions. We also work to broaden awareness of growing food 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.
With mental health and probation settings among your groups, do you think that there is a therapeutic benefit to growing your own food?
Yes, definitely. I think that growing food 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-stress. I think that growing food 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 the nutritional benefits of growing your own food?
We are all becoming increasingly obsessed with food and the nutrients in food but we neglect to really think about the nutrients in particular fruit and vegetables. Take carrots that have been grown in the same field for 20 years compared to a carrot that has been grown fresh this year – what is the nutritional difference? When you grow food yourself you see how hard it is to replace the nutrients 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 food you grow yourself there’s no going back.
You get more connected with your food by growing some of it yourself and you can understand how food works from start to finish. Even if you just grow 5% of your food, it gets you thinking about the other 95%.
Growing food also gives you a better understanding of seasonality and you get a real appreciation of flavor by eating food when it’s at its most nutritious. If you see butternut squash in the supermarket off season it’s either grown somewhere else or sprayed with something to keep it from rotting. I don’t eat tomatoes in February or March – I wait until they are at their best.
Basically nature knows best and there is a natural cycle of food, based on what our bodies need. Vibrant spring greens are great for boosting your metabolism. Summer fruit like tomatoes and vegetables like cucumbers 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 carrots, parsnips and starchy root crops for warming stews. In the supermarket there are no seasons. Food is imported from all around the world and there is very little nutrition left in it by the time it reaches us.
GIY must be a very useful way to get children interested in food and eating more healthily. How do kids respond to it?
Getting kids involved in growing food 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 food.
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, Eat” (2014) was very well received.
What was it all about and why do you think it was so successful?
Grow, Cook, Eat 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 cooking element, with recipes from well-known chefs. It has a good crossover appeal between gardening and cooking. 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 food, cook food and eat healthy food 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 nutrition?
Follow your dreams. Life is short. Don’t be afraid to try and make mistakes. Just go do it.