Adam Brock is an urban permaculturalist currently serving as Director of Operations at The GrowHaus, a nonprofit food justice center based in a half-acre greenhouse in Colorado’s most polluted zip code. He is a graduate of NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study with a concentration in Ecological Design and has been active as an urban agriculture practitioner and advocate since 2008. Adam is a member of Denver’s Sustainable Food Policy Council and collaborates with numerous sustainability- and social justice-oriented groups in the Denver area.
Adam’s passion for permaculture design extends into creative endeavors, including a sincere effort to create a regionalized cuisine in Colorado and work with hip hop artists to communicate good food ideas.
What issues have you been focused on?
Our work at The GrowHaus is about creating a hub for new ways of relating to our food, particularly in our neighborhood where the food system is pretty much broken. We believe in a holistic model that tackles food production, food distribution and food education simultaneously to rebuild our food system from the ground up.
Permaculture is a big part of our mission and organizational culture – we teach permaculture classes for all kinds of people, and it informs everything from how we grow food to how we relate to our neighbors.
What inspires you to do this work?
What keeps me excited is seeing firsthand the change we’re making in people’s lives – especially young people. We’ve worked with some of the same neighbors for years; we’ve seen people take on cooking and permaculture as a career path and watched it become a core part of who they are and how they want to transform their communities.
Even on a one-time basis, there’s an amazing transformation that takes place with the school groups in our service learning workshops. When they come in, they may be skeptical, but then they taste lettuce out of our aquaponics system for the first time and you can see the change happen right in front of you. Once they get to work, they get right into it and leave inspired.
What’s your overall vision?
At The GrowHaus, we say it’s about creating communities where everyone has the means to nourish themselves. We take that literally – people being able to feed themselves – but we also see it as empowering people to express themselves and their culture fully, to have meaningful employment related to what they love.
What books and/or blogs are you reading right now?
One of my permaculture mentors, Peter Bane, came out with a book called The Permaculture Handbook just last year. It’s a great guide to implementing permaculture design practices in urban and suburban areas.
The Empowerment Manual by Starhawk has also been inspiring to me recently. It’s about applying permaculture ideas to working with collaborative groups.
On the fiction tip, The Wind-Up Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi is a fascinating sci-fi book that explores what happens to people after the oil contraction, after people get back on their feet in Bangkok in the year 2200.
Who’s in your community?
I try to think of my community in the broadest way possible. Living in a diverse place like Denver, I try to make connections among all the different kinds of people that live here. Two very different but close communities to me are the rural farmers in the High Plains Food Co-op and a community of spoken-word and hip-hop artists in town who make sustainable food accessible to folks who wouldn’t read a blog or download a TedTalk.
What are your commitments?
I think of it in terms of the ethics of permaculture: Take care of your eco-system, take care of the people in your community, and re-invest the surplus you have (time, energy or money) into the health of the first two things. I let those ethics drive my work and hold me accountable. They help me walk the talk.
What are your goals?
At The GrowHaus, we’re working on finishing up our commercial aquaponics system, one of the largest in Colorado. We also just got a USDA grant to create a weekly food box program to get healthy food to people in the neighborhood at an affordable price.
Another goal I have personally is to take the local food concept to the next level with what I call “bioregional cuisine.” Here in Denver, we’re in an almost desert, so I’d love to see us create a food culture that embraces foods which actually make sense to grow here. In a couple generations, I could see species like quinoa, sorrel, bison, currants, or Jerusalem artichoke really forming the basis of our diets here.
What does change look like to you?
Ultimately, I feel like I’m helping to create a society that actively restores soil quality and bio-diversity by just going about its business. It means re-organizing our physical structures like transportation, as well as invisible structures like our political and economic systems. It means embracing our culture and sense of place. And it means adopting culturally-appropriate diets rather than pretending we live somewhere like California.
Regarding the practicalities of enacting change, what planning is involved? What kind of outreach?
It’s important to think big and start small, doing what you know you can accomplish with the resources you have and the people with whom you’re connected. You’ve got to deeply understand your community – let go of your ego and really listen to what people need. Then, use the skills you have to deliver on that need. One strategy that I’ve found helpful is cultivating cultural translators – people who can take ideas that may not immediately relate to someone and communicate them in a way that speaks to where they are, in a way they feel comfortable with.
What projects are affiliated with yours?
The GrowHaus is just one part of an eco-system of amazing work happening here in Denver. There’s Colorado Aquaponics, whom we helped incubate as a small business years ago and is now a national leader in this technology.
I teach every year at The Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute, where they are growing tropical plants in greenhouses above 7200 feet with low-tech solutions and no fossil fuels.
There’s also a great group here in Denver called Going Green Living Bling who make eco-conscious hip hop. They take the message to schools all over town and get kids interested in gardening and eating right.
What projects and people have you got your eye on or are you impressed by?
One of the projects I’ve always admired is Planting Justice. They do a lot of work in the East Bay and work with residents there and inmates in Oakland. They’ve come up with an amazing model combining urban agriculture and social justice.
Where do you see the state of agriculture/food policy in the next 5-10 years? Is real policy change a real possibility?
Yeah, I think so, but we’re not quite there yet. Obviously Prop 37 was a real bellweather. It showed there’s a lot of public support, but it seems like we don’t have the bucks we need to fight the misinformation out there. I’m sure a lot of people are learning lessons on how that went down. I’m not too much of a policy person but I can see from the sidelines that we’re coming really close to influencing how our country makes decisions that impact the food system.
What does the food movement need to do, be or have to be more effective?
I think it just needs to keep doing what it’s doing. Every time I went to a CFSC conference I was always humbled by the incredible work happening all over the country. I would go thinking I had some new insight to share and then I would meet all kinds of people who were three or four steps ahead. There are thousands of us involved in this movement in a grassroots way – the next step is joining forces and showing the rest of the country that we mean business.
What would you want to be your last meal on earth?
Well, the Thanksgiving meal I just ate with my housemates was pretty tough to beat. We ate tilapia from our aquaponics system, lettuce from The GrowHaus and fresh berries, a few pies. It was pretty great.