Man in Overalls - The Valley of Food & Ag Startups: Warren Wilson College

If you're interested in tech, pay attention to Silicon Valley. If you're interested in food and agriculture, Swannnoa Valley, more specifically Warren Wilson College, is the place to keep on your radar.

Man in Overalls with (L to R) Mary Elizabeth, my wife and
Rachel (Williamson) Perry, WW alum and herbal tea entrepreneuer
I'm an alum and proud of it, class of 2008. I studied community organizing, wrote a 140 page thesis about social movements as my capstone.

Nathan, as college Freshman
on WW Electric Crew. (Look
for the blue water bottle)
It's a work college, one of seven in the country. Think universal work-study, so in addition to whatever one's academic track, students are also working in the cafeteria, the library, admissions, as carpenters, lock smiths, lab techs, and-- per the agricultural legacy of Warren Wilson-- as row crop, animal, and vegetable farmers, gardeners, and edible landscapers.  Personally, I worked on the electric crew and then on the landscape crew where I led the edible landscape sub-crew in managing a 1-acre edible (Permaculture) landscape around the "Ecodorm."

Per the "triad" of Warren Wilson's educational system, we were charged with academics, work, as well as giving back through service.

The impact of Warren Wilson's food and ag entrepreneurial spirit, however, can only, in part, be understood through the lens of requirements. Warren Wilson is a place that encourages and replicates a culture of curiosity, passion, and dedication for issues and enterprises related to good food.

Kids would disappear for the weekend, and when someone asked where they'd been, they'd say, "Oh man! I visited this amazing farm!" In dorm kitchens across campus, students would share family recipes and offer samples to friends studying in common rooms. Students would ponder together as they brushed their teeth about how to affordably provide food access in low-income communities and overhaul the health of our current sugar-laden food chain. Cafeteria worker-students synced up with the recycling crew students to explore how to compost food waste, safely, at scale.  A friend brewed batch after batch after batch of organic beer... in his dorm room. Students conducted undergraduate research about the antibiotic qualities of garlic. Spontaneous student campaigns coalesced about every 3-4 years (for the past 30) to pressure our food service provider, Sodexo to... launch a new student-run vegetarian cafe on campus, purchase produce from the on-campus garden, partner with a student-run local food name it.

In the midst of things, I didn't realize the extent to which Warren Wilson was incubating generations of food and agriculture leaders. A few years after I launched as Man in Overalls, a friend and I started taking mental note of the many, many of our fellow alums (some agricultural majors, but mostly not) who-- whether they had started their own enterprise or were working for something larger- were all working in the fields of food and agriculture.  To give you a taste, this past weekend at homecoming, friends and I- in a couple minutes- brainstormed an extensive list of businesses & organizations that fellow alums have started:
And here are a sampling of food and ag organizations that our fellow alums work with and for:
WW Alumni, Emily
Beyond these organizations are
  • an employment and immigration lawyer who spent summers picking fruit as a farm worker to better understand the situation of his migrant worker clients
  • a serial soil-science entrepreneur who has co-founded multiple businesses and who speaks and consults globally
  • several doctors who - though poorly educated on the subject by med school- are nonetheless integrating holistic diet and nutrition into their practices
  • several artists and authors who elevate food and farming, for example Kathryn Stewart.
  • public health administrators who are writing policy and educating the public to address food desert realities
The question is, of course, from whence cometh this wellspring of curiosity, passion, and dedication that has compelled generations of Warren Wilson alums to become food and agriculture leaders, to become food system creators and influencers?

Sure, we've had a farm since the school was founded in the late 1800s, a farm that in 2017, won "Top College Farm in the US," a farm that continues to inspire incredible undergraduate research, not to mention a farm that supplies delicious protein and vegetables to the cafeteria year round. But it's more that that.

On wikipedia, Timothy Sturgeon is quoted as saying
Perhaps the strongest thread that runs through [Silicon Valley's] past and present is the drive to "play" with novel technology, which, when bolstered by an advanced engineering degree and channeled by astute management, has done much to create the industrial powerhouse we see in the Valley today.
Pie Day Pie Share at WW
This, I believe, is close to the mark. For years, as students, as faculty, staff, and administrators, we played with our food, no, our food systems. We experimented, daily, with ways to compost, plant, with new recipes; we entertained sweeping policy changes, imagined hunger away, cooked for (and cleaned up after) each other for meals. And, just as importantly, we talked to each other about all of it. If there was a subject that captured more air time than anything else at "Wilson," it was food and agriculture. One couldn't help but be instilled with the principles and practices of good (healthy, green, fair, and accessible) food.

People ask me if I majored in agriculture, and the answer is, of course, no. But should you ask me if I "studied" food and agriculture at Warren Wilson, the answer is, "Yes." My friends majored in sustainable agriculture, and we talked about soil science in the hallways. I spent two years observing and working, almost daily, in a Permaculture landscape. A friend interned at a major food waste reclamation nonprofit in the UK, and I followed her blog. I learned to cook on a whole new level with friends in my dorm's common room kitchen. I co-led a student campaign for a local food purchasing policy. I gained a better understanding of a part of the migrant farm worker experience through a study abroad semester on the US-Mexico border. I volunteered at the food pantry around the corner from campus. I taught freshmen a page out of my grandmothers book: how to can apple butter.

And, truly, my experience wasn't, isn't unique. Without realizing what was going on, only in looking back are we realizing that we went to school in a place just as generative as Silicon Valley, only the focus was food- not tech.

So, here's my tip. If you want to nurture new (and old) food ways, to help cultivate community-based good food systems that do, indeed, work for everyone-- or if you just want to have a prolific food garden this fall-- play with your food, in every way you can. And talk about it with folks of all walks of life. You never know, maybe they're looking to play with their food (system) too.

Man in Overalls at Oct 2017 homecoming garden cleanup day
with former landscaping crew boss, Tom & current student, Nick,
who now manages the edible landscape at WW's Ecodorm.
After posting, fellow alumni contributed these additional organizations founded or led by WW alums: