Celebrating Food Security and the Dream that Led to Grow Further

On May 14, we had the honor of welcoming a roomful of guests to Town Hall Seattle for an evening of food, drinks, discussion, and laughter. There were somber moments, but mostly inspiring conversations and stories shared with an attentive audience. It was a night to remember, and one of our most successful public events to date.

Our event was entitled “From Refugee to Global Visionary: An Evening with Dr. Cedric Habiyaremye,” and featured two speakers. Dr. Habiyaremye led the evening by sharing the story of how he rose from poverty in Rwanda to become an esteemed agricultural scientist. Afterwards, our CEO Peter Kelly, an agricultural economist, shared the tale of what inspired him to create Grow Further, the first nonprofit that welcomes individuals to help fuel innovation in smallholder farming.

It was a tough act to follow, as Peter himself acknowledged (he jokingly questioned his decision to let Cedric speak first), but the story of Grow Further’s founding is entertaining and informative in its own right. Just as Cedric found his path to improving food security for others, Peter explained how he sought to create something that could empower others to do the same. “I wanted to create that organization that would help other people reach their potential and get involved,” he said.

And so, he did.

Peter’s earliest farming experiments

As Peter explained to everyone, his interest in farming and food security began early in his youth. As a young boy, he said, he thought it would be brilliant to try growing a garden out in the woods between the trees—the leaf litter would provide excellent natural fertilizer for his crops, or so he reasoned at the time. Knowing full well that he was about to learn an important lesson through humility, his parents didn’t interrupt him but rather let him conduct this experiment.

Of course, the crops didn’t grow. Yes, plants need food but they also require sunlight, and in the forest, the trees take pretty much all of it. “My parents were nice enough to allow me to fail and learn my lesson that plants don’t grow without light,” he recalled, to the audience’s delight.

His subsequent forays into farming were more successful. “I got a little better at growing things, especially tomatoes,” he continued. “What really made the difference was a new variety of tomatoes came along that was disease-resistant—it resisted the disease that caused the Irish potato famine—and also I was the only person in town that had golden orange cherry tomatoes.”

The importance of cultivating this newer, more innovative variety of tomatoes cannot be overstated, Peter said. “This was totally the difference between profit and loss for me as a small farmer.”

A revelation in college

With these lessons forever burned into his memory, Peter later went on to study international agriculture at the University of California-Davis. There, he retold how he convinced his professor “to organize an honors section.” This professor sent the honors section to the computer lab to fire up Netscape, visit the websites of international agricultural development organizations, and write a paper with some observations. Peter’s term paper noted something rather interesting.

“What I noticed is that there were some organizations that had done really neat things like developing rice that millions of farmers were growing and preventing famines in India and stuff like that,” Peter explained. “And then there were other organizations that are really clear on their website how you can donate, how you can volunteer, how anybody can get involved. But there was no overlap between these two organizations—there was no way to get involved in the ones that had done the big stuff.”

His solution to this mismatch, he said, was to create an organization that bridges this divide. “I thought someday I’m going to do something about this.” 

Gathering allies

As Peter explained that evening, Grow Further’s story is still being told.

Just as the March of Dimes “inspired a whole sector of medical research charities” Peter said his ultimate hope is that Grow Further inspires a whole new way for the world to pursue food security—through the active involvement of individuals eager and willing to participate in a movement that has been the domain of large government-funded research centers up to now.

“I never let go of that dream to contribute to global food security and create ways for others to reach their potential,” Peter said. “Global food security is much too big for one person to do alone.”

In short, Grow Further was created to help anyone with an interest in food and agriculture to help propel agricultural innovation “even if, like me, they are all thumbs in the lab,” he said. And as agricultural economists like himself know, Peter stressed that the returns on investments in food and agriculture are some of the greatest to be had. The potential is enormous.

As one wise Buddhist in China told Peter, creating Grow Further could reap him dividends in a spiritual sense, as well. “The most common occupation on Earth is being a smallholder farmer in a developing country,” Peter recalled his friend telling him. “And if you’re unlucky enough to be reincarnated as one of them, you’re going to have a better second life, too.”

A night for celebration

Global food security is much too big for one person to do alone.”

The laughter following that anecdote underscored the ultimate purpose of our May 14 gathering in Seattle: To tell our story and spread the word, but also to celebrate the road ahead and the potential for individuals like Cedric and others to help build a more food-security future.

The question-and-answer session that followed the two keynote presentations proved that we had the pleasure of welcoming an informed audience that knew a thing or two about the challenges facing farmers.

One audience member asked just how much money is needed to greatly enhance smallholder agriculture. As Peter explained, the first grants issued by Grow Further barely begin to scratch the surface. “We are roughly an order of magnitude away from where we should be in terms of developing country R&D investment,” he said. After someone in the audience expressed fears about farmers aging in places like China with fewer people willing to replace them, Peter pointed out that the aging of farmers was a global issue but not, in his view, a crisis.

The most important takeaway from our event, Peter said, was that with the creation of Grow Further, anyone can contribute to our work of connecting people and ideas to help smallholder farmers create a food-secure future.

“Everyone deserves food,” he said, “and anyone can help create a food-secure future.”

 — Grow Further

Photo credits: Robert Winkle Photography.

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