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Brit Steele and Sherryl Anderson are the co-founders of Growing Hope, a community based organization based in Southern California, which connects underserved individuals with workforce development opportunities through hands-on learning in a full-production hydroponic greenhouse and CEA lab. In this in-depth conversation, we cover everything from their journey into CEA to their current work fighting for social and policy changes to open even more CEA opportunities to disadvantaged communities.

AmHydro: Thanks so much for making some time to speak. To get us started, I’d love to hear a bit about the two of you and the journey so far.

Brit Steele :
Back in 2016 I was doing some work in the area of community food ecosystems, looking at food insecurity and food deserts. As part of that work, I was looking at using a school site for some type of an urban farm or garden. I had never worked with hydroponics before, but that was when I was introduced to AmHydro and first met Rudy.

That project didn’t end up working, but the seeds were planted. I met Sherryl around that time too. We figured that with her background in computer science and marketing, and mine in science and business, maybe we could do something together. The ideas started flowing. We were really interested in the technology aspects of controlled environment agriculture, the community angle of schools and education, and especially this idea of a cyclical project with multiple positive outcomes; harvesting energy sustainably, turning it into food, turning the food into fuel, and overall investing in STEM education and careers.

We pitched our ideas around for a while before they took root. We finally found a school that was seeking a grant. They wanted to put in a little garden, and we said… “Would you like to maybe do it bigger?” Well, since then we’ve done a garden, and a lab, and a greenhouse, and we’re still expanding. The school said “Let’s go on a journey together,” and we’re now on year seven of that journey.


Sherryl Anderson :
 I always hated the question “What do you want to be when you grow up.” I didn’t know. I liked a lot of things, and over the years I’ve learned a lot by doing a lot of different things. I’ve been an undeclared student, and then in finance, and then in marketing. I think there’s a lot of students who are in that situation today too. What’s interesting to me is how many different industries food touches. Everybody eats, and it can involve education, technology, science, the climate, and so much more.

We knew we wanted to do something to bring food production closer to the experience of ordinary students, but we also wanted to figure out ways to make a working CEA farm relevant to the educational and developmental needs of children from kindergarten all the way through high school and beyond. Some students may pursue careers in agriculture, but most won’t. How could we make sure that we were still equipping them for future success? Of course that’s really not so difficult.

By giving students hands-on experience running a farm, they’re learning about business, math, logistics, planning, and so much more, in a really unique and experiential way.

It’s a really incredible project and I’m excited to dig in a little deeper.

To start with, Brit, you alluded to the fact that neither of you had worked professionally in CEA before founding Growing Hope.

Tell me about some of the challenges you encountered trying to break into that space for the first time.

Brit Steele :
That’s a really good question. We did get asked point blank if we had growing experience, and we had to own it and say “no.” But there’s an expression called something like a “naive expert” that fit us like a glove. We didn’t know this specific field or industry, but we shared enormous experience in designing good programs. That’s what we focused on.

Sherryl Anderson
We sold them on our vision and program, but of course we did have to hire a horticulturist to help us build it out. She was new to hydroponics as well though, so for all of us we just leaned into curiosity and research and creativity. There’s a great example of how our naivete actually helped us too. We learned about the Primus certification from the Global Food Safety Initiative, and thought it sounded like something we should have to demonstrate our commitment to good food practices. What we didn’t know is that we were actually the first farmers in our area to attain the certification. Our special education students helped participate in the audit, and we ended up getting 98%. It was a real achievement.

Brit Steele
The agricultural aspect was ultimately just one piece of the puzzle that we worked with the school to put together. Just as, if not more, important was our vision for working with students from disadvantaged populations to create opportunities that wouldn’t have been available otherwise. I don’t know if you know this, but the number one career choice of graduating high schoolers is to be an “influencer”. That’s actually not unreasonable when it’s the primary thing you’re exposed to as a definition of success. The school we partnered with is an alternative high school. A continuation school. Half the population is special needs. They don’t fit into many of the existing educational frameworks, and in building this project, one of things we brought to the table was a commitment to help the school attain the funding necessary to give these students opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have had. We’re really proud to see the school winning awards as a result of its commitment to make room for programs like ours.


Sherryl Anderson :
We do have a team that helps with all the different technical skills to keep this program sustaining. The school district gave us an opportunity, and folks like Rudy from AmHydro have contributed expertise and mentorship, and the effect of all of that is that Brit and I have had the space to learn, to grow, and throw ourselves into making this a success, even if we personally didn’t have all of the relevant skills from day one.

AmHydro: That’s right, you mentioned that your relationship with AmHydro started even before this project came around. Can you tell me a bit more about how AmHydro was involved and what it’s been like to work with them?

Brit Steele :
In a way, Rudy has felt like our safety blanket. We had these huge dreams of doing something with food production and food security in a very water-sparse area of Southern California, and being able to call up Rudy with any question we had was invaluable. I could bring him my worst ideas for bringing our dream to life, and if it was a bad idea, he would be honest and tell me “That idea sucks.”

Sherryl and I also got to travel to one of your seminars, which was really educational for us personally. But yeah, even more than any specific equipment or supplies – which are all wonderful – it’s just nice to feel like we’re still going on a journey together. The way our funding works, lots of grants, we’re always needing to submit proposals, spec sheets, etc. And we rely on AmHydro to help us prepare for these proposals, even though we get more losses than wins. We’ve found that lots of vendors don’t have the patience to work with us through that process, they just want to receive an order, fulfill it, and be done. 

AmHydro obviously really cares, very heavily, about the educational components, training, and getting new farmers up and running. That’s part of your DNA, and it fits us quite well.

AmHydro: By operating in a public-private partnership, you’re in a really unique space. You’re not just a public institution, but you also are dependent on grants and public financing – not private investors. Can you tell me more about this model, and how you’ve been able to stay in business through a period where many other private companies have been struggling or going bankrupt?

Brit Steele :
This is a really interesting question, because this was a huge decision we had to make several years ago. Do we want to build a startup in the CEA space that offers the promise of quick income? Or do we want to affiliate in another arena that can give us time, a runway for R&D, and the promise of eventual profit? We picked the second, and it has its pros and cons.

It’s interesting to see how many startups launched around the time we did and are no longer here. I think we made the right decision, but, you know, this approach really means that we spend 70% of our time providing services for our client, and only 30% of our time to actually build our business. At the same time, by offering these community-focused, forward-looking services, we do have access to just incredible resources; to test, to try new things.

Sherryl Anderson :
You asked about the model, and really, what we offer is several specific things. One is technical support services, where we keep the systems and farms running. The other is professional services. We can liaise with architects to help expand the facilities. We also know all the state laws for building; we can work with engineers and end users, whether it’s a city, a school district, a nonprofit, a healthcare institution, you name it. We find ourselves working with engineers who have a vision for a great facility, but no ability to maintain it, or teachers who want to introduce their students to hydroponics, but no way to bring their vision to life. We can support community CEA educational projects from end to end.

AmHydro: With the complexity of these types of services, what does a “day in the life” look like?

Sherryl Anderson :
There is no day in the life! At least for us. We offer incredible consistency for our clients, but our amazing team has a lot to do with that. Being on site, supporting teachers, and maintaining the farms. In maintaining the farms, there’s always curveballs, like adjusting our layouts in order to accommodate accessibility requests, or revisiting programming based on feedback from teachers. We used to do a lot of that ourselves, but as we’ve grown, our team has grown too, and we’ve been able to train folks to take on this type of leadership and responsibility.

Brit Steele :
As we’ve grown, we find ourselves with more resources and experience to start taking on even bigger questions. So we train students on CEA systems… What’s next for them? What happens when they’re out of school? What community systems are in place or not in place? We’re trying to build capacity and workforce development through community engagement. We’re now working on multi-year initiatives, and multiple initiatives at the same time.

A lot of our focus lately has been on policy and advocacy. How do we make sure that this whole agritech thing isn’t just a cool module at school, but something that can actually impact a community and its food systems? We also need programs to scale this work to multiple sites, but how is that funded? So you have limited governmental support, based on miscalculations of the role that agriculture plays in a local economy. These are big issues! Impacting workforce development, environmental agriculture; green technology, land zoning. It’s not glamorous. They won’t make a TV show about this stuff. Day in the life looks like lots of meetings, and phone calls about these sorts of really heady issues. But we feel really lucky to be here in this space, and we see potential to make even more deep and meaningful change in our communities.

AmHydro: This has been such a fascinating conversation. Thank you all so much for your time. I’m sure we could continue talking for hours, but is there anything else we didn’t get a chance to cover that you would like to share?

Brit Steele :
The funny thing is, we’re here talking about all this lofty stuff about policy and social change, but I think these days Sherryl and I both share a secret desire to just be farmers and grow food. We started out with an interest in CEA, coming with no resources and no experience, and we learned how to do the thing and relied on experts in the industry to help guide us. But along the way we’ve just learned about these huge obstacles that make it really difficult for many normal people; especially young people, to follow that exact dream of growing clean food for their communities. It’s been a real journey, and I feel like in many ways we’re still just getting started.

Sherryl Anderson :
Yes, absolutely. It’s so neat how we were able to use our backgrounds from areas totally unrelated to farming and find a niche for ourselves in this space. Food security and green jobs are such important issues for our country and the world right now. It’s something that many people have an interest in, but I want to equip more people to be aware of the business aspects involved. The people that grow our food are business people, and if we want to shift our systems toward more sustainable models, we need to learn how to do good business, marketing, networking, and advocacy. We want to see this industry grow and at the same time, we also need to advocate for changes that will make it easier for more people to get involved in the innovations in AgTech and climate smart or climate resilient farming.


Thank you, Brit and Sherryl!

To learn more about Growing Hope, you can check out their website, or watch some of their videos on Vimeo.

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