Food grower Mick Kelly is a horticultural hero

Fiann Ó Nualláin meets a food grower whose seed of an idea has blossomed into a wonderful movement.

I recently caught up with Mick Kelly the founder of the GIY movement that has swept Ireland and further afield.

A grassroots grow-your-own initiative that has become a serious campaigner for food security and food empathy, putting food-growing into schools, communities and even offices. 

GIY is a group I think is as important as the GAA or even the Land League in enthusing the Irish spirit and empowering our people to live to our full potential and be self- empowered.

Eamonn Rodgers, Rena O’Donovan Cully & Sully, Michael Kelly founder of GIY, service user Cathal Cronin and Emma Hutchinson horticultural co-ordination at the Cork Association for Autism at the Cork Association for Autism centre in Mogeely, Cork.Picture: Patrick Browne
Eamonn Rodgers, Rena O’Donovan Cully & Sully, Michael Kelly founder of GIY, service user Cathal Cronin and Emma Hutchinson horticultural co-ordination at the Cork Association for Autism at the Cork Association for Autism centre in Mogeely, Cork. Picture: Patrick Browne

So rather than get all John Waters on the topic of social revolution, here are the answers to the question I put to Mick and you can make you own mind up to how savage the GIY actually is. The first question I asked was ...

How did GIY come about?

I had my Road to Damascus moment in a supermarket in Ireland about 10 years ago, when I realised some garlic I was about to buy was imported from China. 

On looking into the problem I discovered that in fact, Ireland was importing €5bn worth of food each year, while exporting €7bn worth, and that there were some types of food where we were importing the exact same quantity as we were exporting. 

I felt that was pretty silly, and being a contrary git, I decided to grow my own garlic to reduce my reliance on the food chain. 

Quickly realising that I wasn’t very good at food growing, I set up a local food growers’ group in 2008 so I could learn from some real experts and get to know like-minded folk in my community.

Was it difficult to move from local group to a national organisation?

It was difficult to keep up with the pace that it was moving at. 

There was just incredible demand for the services we were providing from day one. 

We went from being one local group to seven or eight local groups in about 12 months. 

About a year after the first GIY group meeting in Waterford we set up GIY as a national organisation.

Food grower Mick Kelly is a horticultural hero

I got some support from Social Entrepreneurs Ireland and other great organisations to help with that and there was a crew of really committed GIYers from the first couple of GIY groups that were keen to help too. 

The transition to being a national organisation with the proper resources in place to have the impact we want to have is something that took a lot longer and it’s an ongoing battle.

How are things going with GIY becoming international?

Realistically, this is the first really big year we’ve had overseas. We ran two big campaigns in the UK this year. 

Our schools campaign, Sow & Grow which we partner with Innocent, worked with over 130,000 children in 4,300 schools in Ireland and the UK this year.

Our GIY@Work campaign with Cully & Sully, called ‘Give Peas a Chance’, was also run in the UK this year which is amazing. 

Food grower Mick Kelly is a horticultural hero

Teams of growers in companies all over Ireland and Britain have been growing peas on their desks at work this summer. 

On top of that we’ve got GIY groups in Africa, Australia and a group about to start in the US. So, exciting times. 

This year we will support 150,000 people and 5,000 community food projects which is a source of endless astonishment for me.

What were the highlights of the past 10 years?

There have been so many. 

Food grower Mick Kelly is a horticultural hero

Winning a Social Entrepreneurs Ireland award back in the early days was very exciting and a sign that we were on the right track; our medal-winning GIY garden (with a certain F Ó Nuallain in the designer hot-seat) and world-record attempt at Bloom; getting to interview my very own horticultural heroes Joy Larkcom and Patrick Holden at the GIY Gathering in Waterford; bringing the winning Sow & Grow school to meet the president each year; the night we published our first book Grow Cook Eat; hooking up with some amazing partners like Innocent and Cully & Sully; turning the sod at GROW HQ, our new education centre which opens in Waterford this September was also incredibly exciting. 

But in some ways the biggest highlight is getting to meet the people and projects around the country who do Trojan work making their communities better by encouraging people to grow some of their own food.

Who is your average GIYer?

They are never average! They are an amazing crowd of people who are curious about food and desperate to re-connect with in a meaningful way. 

There’s no one demographic that is your typical GIYer. 

Through our projects, campaigns and events we engage with everyone from very young kids in primary schools and pre-schoolers, to young families, the elderly and everyone in between.

You always have great campaigns from school scarecrows to Give Peas a Chance, and GIY is as much about health and wellbeing as it is about harvesting some veg. What are your future aspirations to get the nation enthused about its health and thequality of its food?.

Yes, that’s exactly it. I honestly think food-growing has suffered over the years from being considered a ‘gardening’ pastime with all the stuffy connotations that go with that. 

So our job in GIY as I see it is to make food-growing about food, health, and wellness. Make it contemporary and fun, and a little quirky. 

I would love to get a proper series on growing your own food on to TV to bring it to a really mass audience, but make it a food show rather than a gardening show — there wouldn’t be a dahlia or a hosta in sight! 

I’d like to make GIYing mainstream — have a little pot of something growing in every home, school, workplace and community.

We hear about food empathy, but people aren’t sure if it’s a fad or a way of life?

Food empathy is a deeper respect for and understanding of food that you get when you grow some of it yourself. 

We always say that food-growing is the ultimate food masterclass, the ultimate way to get under the hood of your food and really re-connect with it. 

Food grower Mick Kelly is a horticultural hero

It allows you to understand seasonality, and the work that goes into growing food and to truly value your food again.

The beauty of food empathy is it has a knock-on impact in other areas of your life. 

So, for example, food growers are unlikely to grow all their own food but when they buy food they tend to buy healthier, more seasonal food because of the understanding they’ve gained from their food growing. 

They waste less food, recycle more, compost more. So it’s a virtuous circle. 

As a nation, we are absolutely obsessed with food at the moment, but in some ways we’ve never been more disconnected from it. A nation of food-empathetic people would be a healthier, happier and more sustainable one.

So you are about to launch a HQ in Waterford, how is that project coming along?

We started plotting and scheming and fundraising at least four years ago so it’s hard to believe we’re close to opening our doors now. 

We’re aiming to open by the end of September. We’ve always been a movement without a home. 

Our work was done from an office here in Waterford but we never had a place we could bring people to show them our view of the world.

We also felt that such a place should be urban so that it would be more relevant and accessible to people. 

So we approached the city council here in Waterford and they showed great foresight in giving us a really valuable three-acre site opposite the hospital, about five minutes from the city centre. 

It’s a brilliant opportunity for us to put food-growing right under people’s noses and do it in a really high-profile location.

What will the HQ experience be?

Grow HQ will be the home of the movement, the mother-ship and a place that hopefully will embody all that GIY is — a place of joy, healing and great food. 

Food grower Mick Kelly is a horticultural hero

It will have a grow school, cookery school, 65-seat cafe, shop and training gardens.

It will be a place where you can really connect with your food, learn how to grow it, cook it and of course a place where you can eat great home-grown food — a place that breaks down the walls between where food is grown and where it’s consumed.

Next year is the big 10th birthday. Any plans?

Let’s just say we’re working on some stuff, Fiann. We will have an exciting new campaign to launch later this year which will be of huge benefit to community food projects nationally, and a few other irons in the fire too!


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