Grow Further

A Personal Story by founder Peter Kelly

Wisdom around the importance of farming inspired me, a child of two generations of historians, to pursue agricultural science. In my teenage business growing vegetables for local restaurants, I switched to a new tomato variety to avoid the same disease that caused the Irish Potato Famine. At UC Davis, I earned as many agronomy awards as anyone else in the history of the international agriculture major. But I found that my skills fit economics better than natural sciences, and went on to complete a PhD in agricultural economics and become one of the first Americans to teach economics on a permanent faculty track in China.

After four years as a professor in China (yes, I did occasionally grade standardized tests handwritten in Chinese by aspiring civil servants), I came to realize that the real innovations that drive society forward do not necessarily emerge from bureaucracy. The loss of my mother drove home the point that life is short and that giving makes it more meaningful.

Unfortunately, no organization existed to enable people like me to support and meaningfully engage with international agricultural science as I had long dreamed of doing. Some of the most important work in society was happening in a closed bureaucracy, with a couple of foundations assisting government and the private sector. The middle class had no way to provide funds or ideas, much less to far out-give foundations as happens in most sectors.

Fortunately, I realized that I was in the right place at the right time to help change that. Each of the main funders of public agricultural research in the US today (US government, UN/League of Nations, Rockefeller, Ford, Gates) first started a public health program and later recognized that agriculture was equally important. The public in the Seattle area had become increasingly engaged in global health, ready to start thinking about agricultural research.

As a social scientist I didn’t want to conclude anything (or leave a tenure-track job) without evidence, so I hired market researchers to verify that there were actually others who also wanted to contribute to and engage with agricultural innovation. I also asked senior community leaders like Bill Gates Sr. for advice–his response: “You’re young and you’ve got time. If the first iteration doesn’t work, the second probably will, and if the second doesn’t work the third probably will. Come back, America needs people like you.”

I quit my job as an economics professor and went on a listening tour, interviewing scores of experts around the world about how best to go about implementing the idea. Without exception, the experts thought that some version of the concept was a good idea and something that no other organization was doing. A Buddhist crop scientist I interviewed in Chinese said that this endeavor is not only a way to go to nirvana but also a way to have a better second life if you happen to be reincarnated as a farmer in a developing country. But one non-expert American focus group participant was most succinct: This is a really cool idea!

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