Paul Of Grow Calgary
An interview with the man behind an organic farm built beside a highway.
Strategically located beside one of Calgary’s largest highways, the farm was the result of its creator Paul Hughes’ frustration after realizing all of the unused and highly potential land alongside the highways.
Besides the founder of Grow Calgary, Paul is a hockey coach, farmer, activist, politician, father, and music lover but most importantly he’s a man that prefers to get things done while politicians and dreamers talk about it.
Shortly after I arrived at Grow, Paul pulled up in his iconic, graffiti-covered truck and welcomed me into his well-worn office. After sitting down with him, it was clear that I was accompanied by a man on a mission – Paul is quick and confident in his answers and understandably pressed for time, as like most determined entrepreneurs, he must politely pause to make a quick call or email.
Despite his busy schedule I was able to ask him a few questions regarding Grow’s inspiration, his personal drive, and how the farm came to be.
DYLAN First off, based on the number of different projects you take on and the vast portion of each project that you take on your- self, do you ever get overwhelmed?
PAUL Oh yeah, all the time! Today I actually just submitted our veteran’s farm therapy program to the veteran affairs guy – as if I don’t have enough going on. Just in the last two months we’ve had thousands of volun- teers, and every day I’m here. So yeah, it can definitely get overwhelming.
With your impressive list of different projects on a variety of different social issues, you’ve clearly been strongly inspired to commit to a socially aware and active lifestyle. Can you speak to how that could have come about?
That was my dad, I lived in small towns around northern Canada while my dad was in the mining industry. Growing up in those little towns, my dad was always an activist and I learned to read by sitting on his lap reading The Globe And Mail, The Winnipeg Free Press, and the Vancouver Province all while listening to Thomas Douglas records. He just sort of planted that socially aware seed with me.
Considering the amount of time you dedicate to all these projects, I assume it takes a toll on your personal time. What gave you such a giving and selfless nature? Have you ever been intrigued by the personal or financial gains of a different career?
Oh no, I’ve always railed against the fix- ings of our society and keeping up with the Joneses. I wrote a letter to myself when I was pretty young and I told myself to pursue experiences over money. Once I finished my four years in the military I just really wanted to gain as many experiences as I could.
I started as a concert promoter booking bands like Green Day and working with record labels and booking festivals and stuff. I was always an odd-cat, you know? So, the lack of interest in material goods just came with that. I’ve just never really pursued it as I was always looking for those new experiences.
I basically realized that, depending on if I really cared about a job or what I was doing; I could be the best employee in the world or the absolute worst. Unless there’s a strong connection personally, I’m not drawn to dedicate my time to it – no matter the financial benefits. For the last 25 years I’ve been doing my own thing. I live simple and do what I want to do.
The mind, spine, the heart is what I’m all about. It’s the life I’ve chosen.
Having spent a considerable amount of time with politicians or government officials, either based on your fight for the Grow Land or your previous running for mayor, I assume you’ve found this lifestyle clashing with other politicians or people within that world?
Well yeah, I was just getting tired of going to meetings and people going “Oh, look at the time! Let’s meet next month,” and watching them all just go back to their privileged lives. I just understood that people are hungry now and something actually needed to be done.
That’s what I like to do: Not just talk about it but create a proof of concept like the farm. I built the farm to actually show that we can grow food along the transportation corridor and not just mow it.
Politicians are always saying “They need this and they need that” – but how do they know? They’re so scared of actually interacting with struggling people. They have no idea. They’re able to explain all the committees that they’re on but they’re still so disconnected.
So, is this a reason you’re running for mayor?
Yeah, a lot of people are afraid of the sys- tem and won’t even talk to officials but I’m not afraid of those guys. I have a lot of contempt for those people. I’ve dealt with 10 different levels of politics and it’s pretty familiar to me.
Does your experience with Grow tie in with your political career at all?
Yeah, the main reason I got involved with politics was because I became embarrassed that we haven’t started to fix our homeless- ness and hunger problem.
I was inspired by a company in NYC called 596 Acres that did a study in New York to figure out how many people there were per acre of land. They concluded that there’s roughly 15,000 people per acre and I did something similar to realize that Calgary has only 11 people per acre. So, that’s like having 11 people inside the saddledome.
So at 1:11 you can seriously house or feed everyone in the city with the amount of empty land that we have. Grow is just 11 acres of 12,000 on the transportation utility corridor – land just on the side of the roads. But they spend 20 million dollars just mow- ing these areas.
So, I assume this is where the inspiration behind Grow started?
That’s how I found the land. After fight- ing for five years, I finally I got it for $30 an acre annually. I had to fight for five years just to grow food and give it away to the hungry; and for those five years they were just paying to mow it.
Right, so it’s safe to say that Grow’s primary focus is simply on feeding the hungry?
Yeah, we harvest the produce, fill buck- ets up and distribute them around the city to places like In From The Cold, Calgary Women’s Emergency Centre, Alpha House, and various drop in centres.
Part of the process is also picking up organic waste from local restaurants and bringing it back as organic compost to grow the food; I call it the “Local Loop.”
And how many employees do you have?
It’s all volunteers. From April 19th to June 7th we’ve had 11,000 volunteers from colleges, high schools, clubs, businesses and different associations – I’m the only full-time volunteer. It’s not hard to find volunteers as it’s an interesting and valuable subject for students of all levels.
Thanks Paul, your ambition and perseverance are truly remarkable; I hope this endeavor can inspire other like-minded individuals to also take action to make change happen. Thank you, and the best of luck to you and Grow.