John Gordon Jr. is the Executive Director and founder of BoysGrow, a nonprofit in Kansas City that works with boys from the age of 12-15 teaching them to farm and simultaneously become entrepreneurs. The farm is 10-acres and with the produce grown, the boys create products (such as the honey mustard above) that go on to be sold at local grocery stores and restaurants. This relationship to farming, agriculture, business, and synergistic teamwork that Gordon shepherds is informing a new generation of thinkers and we want you to know about it.
AO: What prompted you to launch BoysGrow?
I started BoysGrow after working in Chico California with at-risk youth. We had one youth who was placed with a foster family on a small functional farm. Within weeks he was a different kid. He had responsibility, structure and felt like we was a part of something. Something clicked in my mind and I wanted to try to recreate the experience he had with that foster family, but also allow the youth to be a part of a small business. Before BG, I worked in Chico and before that I worked in my family's business, where we ran a Mexican import store.
AO: You’re trying to farm entrepreneurs as much as plants. Why is the marriage of both important to you?
There are so may things you can learn from a day on a farm. And there is so much you can learn being a part of a small business. We are simply using the farm as the small business.
AO: Tell me about the farm. What’s it look like? What’s an average day like?
We have 10 acres, just 25 minutes from downtown Kansas City. We are 5 minutes from a gas station, but behind us is 300 acres that's untouched. It is country when you walk to back of the farm. We have the best of both worlds being in the city but in the country. KC can offer that. Of the 10 acres, we grow on 6. We have goats, chickens, a pig and farm dogs. We have a pond that the boys hop into during the summer months and a big smokehouse we built for our farm dinners. The farm has an old hayloft bar and a few other buildings. We put in about 60 apples, peaches, and cherries 3 years ago, so they are starting to produce.
AO: How many applicants do you typically have? What do you base your acceptance on?
We typically get between 20-40 applications and take in 18 youth. BG is like a football team where you can't have all on one position. Some of our criteria to get in is based on their interest in Culinary Arts, Farming, Construction, Public Speaking or graphic design. That way we can round out the different teams the boys are put into. Aside from that we have a scoring system based on the need and interest of the applicant and all youth have a job interview.
AO: What’s the easiest thing to teach people about gardening and the most challenging?
The easies is that it is fun and you can grow a lot of food in small spaces. The hardest is follow through. Once you plant it your relationship has just begun.
AO: We heard you’re building an industrial kitchen! Are you fundraising for this? What will this enable you to do?
Yes we are currently in a Capital Campaign to raise money for a Culinary Center. We have around 650k raised but need to raise more. We are building an eco-friendly building based on german engineering called PassivHaus. We will use 80% less energy than a traditional building and be a great educational tool for the boys. The center will have four main parts; office space, certified kitchen, post-harvest handling room, and a large event space. This will be game-changer for us. We can muscle up our food production and culinary arts program. We have the interest but our lack of refrigeration and wash stations has limited our vegetable production, that will all change. As a non profit we try to get creative on how to raise funds internally and the center will take us to the next level. We will host corporate board meetings, offer cooking classes or have the capacity to lease out the space for other events.
AO: Tell us about your sponsors.
Without Cargill we don't have a farm. They came to our aid when we needed it most. We try to work with organizations and people who have a passion for what we are trying to accomplish with our youth. Lidia Bastianich took a very rooted interest in our program based on the time she spent on her grandmother's farm as a child. She has such positive and life changing experiences that she wanted to be a part of an organization who might offer some of those opportunities to youth.
AO: Where do you source seeds from?
We purchased this farm in 2014 and are in the process of getting it organically certified. We purchase non-GMO seeds from a variety of companies including Johnnies and from local growers.
AO: What do you guys grow? What are some of the products that have been created and how are those branded / sold? Are proceeds return to the boys that created them or the nonprofit?
We grow a little bit of everything but focus a lot of our efforts on greens, cherry tomatoes, and a variety of root vegetables. Each class creates their own value-added product with something coming from the farm. They are developed in-house and then we contract out the bottling and we handle all sales and distribution. All proceeds go back to the nonprofit. We currently have Salsa Orgullo, Agave Ketchup, BBQ Sauce, Avocado Hot Sauce, Tzatziki Salad Dressing, Jalapeño Honey Mustard, and Heirloom Tomato Bruschetta.
AO: Have you remained in contact with your original 25 attendees? If so, what are they up to?
Our boys from the first class are literally all over the place. Some have come back to work for us. I think the coolest story is from our first class. One of the boys was 19 and a few years after he graduated, he created a “Gentleman's Class” that we now teach the boys. It ranges from interview skills to dining etiquette and a bunch in between.
AO: What’s next for BoysGrow?
Next up is our Culinary Center. We want to grow food and entrepreneurs. We have a very unique opportunity to truly change the way teenagers approach food. When they are with us they will be able to grow it, sell it, can it or eat it. We already see their mindset shift a little bit once they start working on the farm. We hear from guardians that their kids have changed how they eat. Once you taste fresh stuff and you know how to get it or grow it….it's hard to go back.
The Culinary Center will take us to that next level and equip our Culinary Youth with all the skills they will need to get a job in a restaurant once they graduate from our program.
For more information on BoysGrow, visit their website.