In this interview, the first of a 3-part series, our journalist interviews our founder about the vision behind Grow Further.
Grow Further: What is your professional background?
Peter Kelly: Before I started Grow Further, I was a professor of economics at Renmin University in Beijing. I taught agricultural, development, environmental, and public-sector economics as well as micro and macroeconomics. I had undergraduate through PhD students and taught in both English and Mandarin. I published in international academic journals on sustainable agricultural development and served on committees as a regular faculty member.
Before that, I earned a PhD in agricultural and resource economics at UC Berkeley and a bachelor’s in an equally long-winded major–international agricultural development–at UC Davis. I’m actually using my undergraduate degree more than any other specific professional background these days at Grow Further.
The most important thing I learned is that international agriculture is so broad, encompassing international development, agricultural science, management, and so forth in a huge variety of cultural and geographical contexts, that my knowledge just scratches the surface and I need to build and rely on a team in order to be effective. For example, Shannon, our membership director, knows a lot more about livestock than I do.
Grow Further: What is your personal connection to agriculture?
Peter Kelly: Other than an aunt who worked as a civil servant in agricultural conservation, my family had no ties to agriculture. My parents were a historian and a librarian, so I read a lot of books and realized that agriculture was important from an early age.
As a child, I had the idea to grow tomatoes in a forest where the leaves would fertilize them and make them grow wonderfully. Of course, they didn’t get enough sun and died, but it was a learning experience. By age 15, I had a profitable market garden, almost big enough to qualify as a farm, mainly growing cherry tomatoes for restaurant delivery but also growing other vegetables and distributing them through a stand and home deliveries, filling orders placed using 1995-era e-commerce technology.
I worked in several soils labs in college, taught English to rice scientists, and wrote a dissertation on the socioeconomic effects of farmland afforestation in China based on household data from remote areas. I don’t have access to land at the moment, but if you’re on a Zoom call with me the first thing you’ll notice is that my apartment is filled with plants and flowers like a greenhouse.
Grow Further: Why did you found Grow Further? What inspired you to establish the organization?
Peter Kelly: In college, I wanted to become an agricultural scientist and breed better rice that could help prevent famines. But I had more of the skills of an economist than a lab scientist, so I studied economics and used my training in a conventional way as a professor. But I never forgot my dream and came to recognize that sometimes what society values most is initiative rather than skills.
I also learned a couple of things as an economist. First, agricultural research has proven a highly effective public investment (it’s less than 0.1% of global GDP but the rest of the economy basically wouldn’t exist without it). And second, agricultural research is subject to both market failure (you can’t patent crop rotation) and government failure (innovative ideas can be too risky for government), leaving a gap for the nonprofit sector to fill.
But I didn’t want to leave a permanent faculty track without doing my homework, so I asked agricultural scientists (who told me, yes, there is an urgent need for more diverse funding sources); farmers (the system is hopelessly bureaucratic–if I have an idea of how to do farming better no one takes it seriously); and focus groups of prospective members (this is a cool idea, to have a way to shape the future of food security without needing to become a full-time professional).
The single most influential individual in my decision to establish the organization was Bill Gates Sr., the late father of the Microsoft founder. He told me that his son can’t solve the world’s problems alone, and that if the first iteration of my idea doesn’t work the second will, and if the second iteration doesn’t work the third will.
Grow Further: Where did the idea for Grow Further come from?
Peter Kelly: In college, I thought there ought to be an honors section of Introduction to International Agricultural Development, so I petitioned the university to create it. This took a fair amount of effort, so I went to the professor and basically said, ‘we’re counting on you to create something great’. He was an anthropologist nearing retirement, and his idea of doing something big outside of his comfort zone was to organize a computer lab.
In the computer lab, the professor prepared a list of websites of international agricultural development organizations and sat us down in front of the fastest computers on campus with an assignment to familiarize ourselves with them and write a paper with some reflections.
What I noticed was that there were some organizations that were very clear on how one could donate, volunteer, and otherwise get involved but hadn’t really accomplished much. Then there were others that had big important accomplishments transforming the future of food security but no way to get involved. My reaction was, ‘I’m not ready to tackle this at age 18, but unless someone else does so in the meantime someday I’m going to do something about this and create an organization that both does great things and provides a way for people to get involved.’
Grow Further: Why should people join Grow Further?
Peter Kelly: This may sound a little corny, but it’s all in the name: helping crops and livestock far away grow better, growing the impact of one’s donations, and achieving personal growth through participation. There are lots of ways to contribute technical and cultural expertise, but at the same time the less you know about agriculture and the less experience you have with philanthropy, the more you stand to gain personally from the membership experience.
We’re still a startup, so it’s not too late to be a visionary early member. If you’ve never seen the dancing guy leadership video, it shows in a fun way how early followers are as important if not more important than leaders in the development of a movement. Becoming an early visionary with Grow Further is something that could transform your life and define your legacy. If you know of an equally transformative opportunity, I beg you to tell me about your organization or initiative so that I can join you.
— Grow Further