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Banking on KC – Greg Finkle and Kevin Birzer

 

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to banking on KC. I'm your host Kelly Scanlon. With us on this episode is Greg Finkle and Kevin Birzer, the co-founders of The Giving Grove. Welcome to the show.

Greg Finkle:

Thanks Kelly.

Kevin Birzer:

Kelly, thank you so much. Appreciate the opportunity.

Kelly Scanlon:

Give us an overview of The Giving Grove.

Kevin Birzer:

Kelly, probably the easiest way to describe it is we plant tiny orchards. And when I'm talking tiny orchards, think 10, 12 trees. Typically, those will be paired trees, apple trees, and sometimes cherry trees. We do have some nut varieties that we plant and the goal really is to provide healthy food for the people that live in the area. Second, we've always tried to have things that will help with community engagement and getting communities involved. And third, if we can help the climate, if we can provide shade, even do simple things like collect carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions, we think that's a real plus, but again, very simple, tiny orchards.

Kelly Scanlon:

What inspired you to start The Giving Grove?

Kevin Birzer:

So Greg and I and a third person, Ray Makalous, had been at the Church of the Resurrection and we've been long-time members there and we worked in the hunger ministry, and quite frankly, it's a fabulous ministry, but there was never a sustainable element. And we kept wrestling with it, are there things that we could do that were sustainable? In the interim, my brother worked at an organization as a volunteer called the Oregon Sustainable Agriculture Land Trust and they were taking tiny plots of land and trying to turn those plots of land basically into orchards.

Kevin Birzer:

We thought it was a neat idea. And we wondered if it could be applied here in the Metro area. I'm talking about 2011, 2010 time periods. We got a group together, maybe 20, 25 people from different walks of life, so landscape architects, engineering backgrounds, believe it or not, we had people from political backgrounds, we had gardening backgrounds, just general business backgrounds. We got people together and just said is something out there that does this? And if not, is there a way we can address issues that, again, would come back to providing healthy orchards for people, healthy food, community engagement, if we could get involved with that and can we do something that just beautifies the planet and makes things different and out of that came The Giving Grove.

Greg Finkle:

And Kelly, I will say that Kevin, really, he was the chairman of the food ministry, I don't know, for 10 years or so. And so it was really Kevin's idea that sparked Giving Grove. He and Ray Makalous and I had breakfast by the church one morning. I'll never forget it. And I thought, well, I don't know anything about this. I don't even know how to dig a hole. There is a right way to dig a hole since we've learned. So I just thought it was a great idea. And out of that evolved what Kevin just described our initial meeting with that group. And then we felt that it was enough of an idea that it warranted to try to develop it and see where we could take it.

Kevin Birzer:

I'd say one funny thing, the third co-founder that's not here, Ray Makalous, he was just persistent. He knew it was a good idea. And he just kept pushing ahead and kept saying we've got to do this. Greg and I had full-time day jobs and we've got lots going on and Ray just kept saying, "No, there's something here. We've got to pursue it."

Kelly Scanlon:

And here you are more than a decade later and look at what you've done. If I'm a community or I'm a neighborhood leader and have an interest in starting an orchard in my community, in my neighborhood, walk me through the process. How do I even get started?

Greg Finkle:

Yeah, I think that's a pretty simple answer to start with. We're lucky enough that we've got a website that you can go to www.givinggrove.org. And on the website, there's a little tab that says program and you go to there and then click on approach and that outlines the steps that somebody would go through to see if and how we can help them. Just to expand on that a little bit, one of the things that we have always tried to be as a good partner coming alongside neighborhoods and not coming into neighborhoods. So really, it's important for us to be invited into a neighborhood to help. We've worked hard on that concept to try not to come in and impose an idea on a neighborhood that isn't ready for it or isn't interested.

Kelly Scanlon:

And so someone has approached you, you've been invited in. What are the next steps? How do you help them get this off the ground?

Greg Finkle:

Well, the next step would be somebody from The Giving Grove, one of our staff members, and we have an incredible staff, and incredible leadership within Giving Grove. And, fortunately, we have some expertise on staff. We have a horticulturalist who understands the growing climate in Kansas City and other parts of the country. And so the first step is to come out and take a look at the neighborhood and make sure that some of the physical qualities of the site that may be under consideration is good. We need to have a water source. It needs to be in the right place. There's topography issues, there's soil issues, things like that, but for the most part, any urban neighborhood usually qualifies. It's nothing to do with a shortage of property or locations, it's just more about putting thought into how the orchard can be organized.

Greg Finkle:

And then more importantly than that, the structure within the neighborhood because one of the things that we feel the success of Giving Grove is really reliant on is having what we call stewards in the neighborhood to care for the orchards. And so that's one of the criteria that we want to make sure we have somebody committed to stewardship, and we usually rely on two people. So there's a steward and what we call an apprentice because we're interested in not just ecological sustainability but longevity within the neighborhood. And so we want to make sure that we set up a system that is sustainable over time with people who are committed to care for the orchards.

Kelly Scanlon:

Even more reason for why you want to be invited in, you rely on people to do that within the neighborhoods.

Kevin Birzer:

I think one thing that's important too is if we plant different varieties of trees, fruit trees may last 25 years, but there's nut trees that can last a hundred years, having that upfront preparation on what is the right for the community. How should that be designed? How should it be laid out and make it a park-like setting so it's beautiful in the area? Even when it comes to specific selection of trees, there's a real art to it. So Greg and I joke that we don't know how to dig holes properly. We certainly don't know how to get the right varieties, but they're pretty complex. In many cases, there may be different root stock than the fruit-bearing stock. So they're grafted and that may create better opportunities, but it's also, what's the community want? If apples are not even in that area, the jujubes are popular, let's plant jujubes.

Kevin Birzer:

So there's a lot of dialogue that goes on. And I feel like what I think has been one of the big success stories of the Giving Grove is people could learn this. They could learn the varieties, they could figure out where to plan it, but that's just a steep learning curve. And if we can come along and partner with stewards and apprentices in the area and take that burden away, they don't have to know every variety. They don't have to know where to obtain these trees. We can help them with that. They don't have to know how to lay out the plot. Again, things they could figure out, but it just takes a lot of expertise and time to get that. And if we can come in and share on that burden and help people out and then let the stewards take it from there, that's where we see a lot of success.

Greg Finkle:

Yeah, and it's also just about encouragement. And I think bringing a level of trust into the neighborhood where they can rely on lessons learned from the organization and also a great resource for the trees themselves and the brambles, just so they don't have to go through, like Kevin said, that learning curve with how do you even access good tree stocks?

Kevin Birzer:

And of course that ties, Kelly, to ongoing maintenance, just how do the trees get pruned properly? When is the right time to harvest? How should you handle harvest the first couple years when the trees are small? How do you handle disease issues? There's just so many things. And again, people can learn that, but if we can come alongside and help them with that base of knowledge, it just provides a more successful franchise.

Kelly Scanlon:

So let's talk about the name, The Giving Grove. Obviously, it has meanings on multiple levels. They're trees, so they're going to bear fruit and provide food. We've hit on some of the other ways in which The Giving Grove gives and let's drill down on those a little bit more. Talk to us about the orchard production and the value of the produce, some of the food stats that you have.

Greg Finkle:

Well, that's a great question. And of course, the metrics are always changing. I think right now we're at 380 orchards to date, which equates to about three and a half million annual servings. I think a serving is a third of a pound. That translates to about, I don't know, 76 million lifetime servings within the 380 orchards to date. I think Kevin mentioned earlier, I think our average orchard is about 15 trees, so they're not extremely large.

Kevin Birzer:

Kelly, one thing that surprised me when we got into it is just how productive an individual tree can be. So we have macro statistics, but when you see a tree that maybe is five, six years old that can produce several hundred pounds of food, which is not uncommon if it's a pear tree or an apple tree, that's a lot of food. And again, if you talk about an orchard, 10, 15 trees, it's not enormous, but when you're starting to say each of those could produce, let's say 300 to 400 pounds if not more of fresh produce per year, the numbers start getting pretty big, pretty quick.

Greg Finkle:

And the interesting thing that we learned, too, and I think surprises some neighborhoods is it takes a little bit of discipline because the first couple years the trees aren't producing and you're pinching off these flowers that literally would become fruit, but you're doing it for the long-term. And so I think that's one of the most interesting things about the early stages of a tree is going through that process. And they'll be some neighborhood stewards that you'll be out pinching early fruit off, and they'll jokingly make a comment about let's take too many of those off early on. And so it's a learning experience for sure.

Kevin Birzer:

And Kelly, it's a similar operation on pruning trees and to prune a tree, you clearly want to have some air and you want to have some space, but every time you cut one of those little branches, you're thinking, dog gone it, that would've produced some fruit, but if it over does it, of course, it's not good for the tree long-term. So it's just how do you nurture and develop these trees for the long-term to provide the best fruit possible?

Kelly Scanlon:

So it takes some real commitment on the part of the stewards to see that long-term vision to understand it and to stick with it.

Greg Finkle:

What we've experienced over the years and there's always unintended consequences that are really positive that we never expected. We knew this had the potential to be a community builder, but if you're at a planting, let's say outside an apartment complex and kids come down to help and the look on their face and the staff can share a story, after story, after story, this is one example of kids coming down and helping to plant, and then realizing that fruit actually grows on trees and the look on their face when they realize, also, that they can access it for free and just come down and pick an apple off a tree. I don't know, it's one of the real blessings of what we've experienced over the years.

Kevin Birzer:

The typical orchard, let's say it's about 15 trees, produces nearly $10,000 in value per year. I mean, it's pretty significant. And over the lifetime, it could be approaching $186,000.

Kelly Scanlon:

The next thing that is a giveback from the orchards is the environmental impact. I know you probably weren't really thinking about that when you started this, it was more of the emphasis on the food desert, but talk with us about, again, those pleasant surprises that maybe you weren't expecting when it comes to the environmental impact.

Kevin Birzer:

I think there was an element of environmental impact we looked at day one and that was just to provide beauty and shade. And since we did it, there's been all kinds of things coming up about how parts of Metro areas that have been, let's say, have had difficulties historically don't have as many trees and wealthier areas have more trees and what that has done to neighborhoods, it's very, very impactful. So I think planting trees and just providing shade is a big element. I think the beauty is a big element, but then even when you get to carbon, it's a big thing. Again, a typical orchard with 15 trees, we estimate that will sequester about 2.7 tons of carbon over the life of the trees over 25 years, a quarter of a century, so it's pretty meaningful. And of course, then you start thinking about, well, what does it do to storm water and run off and other pollutants and trees absorb a lot of this, so there's a lot of really nice ancillary benefits from it.

Greg Finkle:

Yeah, I agree. I think I used the term unintended consequences before, but I think maybe a better term would be just benefits that we really didn't expect. We knew that we were going to try to approach this organically. So we knew that in and of itself could be a benefit, but like Kevin mentioned, I mean, trees eat greenhouse gases. They boost mental health and physical health and they clean the air. They support wildlife, they filter rain and they put it back into the aquifers and streamway and things. So there's all these really great benefits that trees provide. And then there's all these great benefits that orchards provide to the community as well.

Kelly Scanlon:

So orchard specifically, such as?

Greg Finkle:

What we found in some of the communities is that some neighbors didn't even know each other and the staff can share story after story of people coming together in orchards, whether it's for a wedding or whether it's for harvest or whether it's just bringing people outside. And it's just a pleasant place to be and some of these neighborhoods, not only did they not have trees, but they didn't know each other.

Kelly Scanlon:

This started in Kansas City, the brainchild of the three of you, so simple idea, big vision, but now it's gone national. How many orchards do you have across the US now?

Greg Finkle:

I think we're up to close to 380 orchards around. I'm not sure how many in Kansas City, Kevin.

Kevin Birzer:

About 200 in Kansas City and about 180 outside the Metro area.

Greg Finkle:

Yeah, so we're in 10 cities across the country at this point. When we first started talking through this idea, we were challenged by how to even start something like this. And it became pretty clear to us early on that we needed to partner with somebody who was already embedded in the community and had a network already built up. And so we were lucky enough to partner with the Kansas City Community Garden in Kansas City, which really has been a great partnership from since the start and actually, Ben Sharda, the director, was part of that initial group, that initial 30 or 35 people that got together that day to just kick around the idea. So out of that, I think that was of proof of concept that if we ever did take it beyond Kansas City, that was the model that we really felt had the most strength.

Kelly Scanlon:

Trying to get a local advocate essentially in each of those cities. So you're in 10 cities, did you decide to proactively go out and start this and identify which cities you wanted to go into or as word got out, did you start getting various requests from around the country? People saying, "Hey, we've heard about this great thing that you're doing. We want to model it in our city." How did that work?

Kevin Birzer:

Kelly, a little bit of both. And let me give you just a step back. I would say it probably took us five years to work out the system. And could you actually plant trees that would work? And Matt Bunch, our horticulturalist, would refer to the soil, we were planting in as urbanite. It was so bad.

Greg Finkle:

It's basically chunks of asphalt.

Kevin Birzer:

You're right, chunks of asphalt, broken bricks. And you're like, we're planting trees in this? Is this really going to grow? And they did. And they produced really nicely, so that was a pleasant surprise. But could we do that? Did this model working with communities work? Did the stewardship and apprentice model work? And we kept coming back to yeah, check, check, check. This is working. And it was almost, we felt like an obligation to start expanding to different cities. We then put together some metrics on what cities would make sense, similar climate. Did they have food insecurity issues that we could help address? Did they have gardening organizations like the Kansas City Community Garden that we could team up with? We started putting these together and started coming up with a list of these are places that it really makes sense. And we started slowly but surely expanding. And since then, it's just started taking on a life of its own almost with groups reaching out to us, us reaching out to different groups. So it's been a real joyful thing to see.

Greg Finkle:

Yeah, that's why we use the term when we refer to other cities as affiliates because they're really partners hand-in-hand with us. We're bringing a little bit of expertise on lessons learned and they're bringing their knowledge of the local communities. So far, it's worked pretty well.

Kelly Scanlon:

What are you finding that The Giving Grove does to bring together our larger community, our Metro, and in the other places where you are across the country, how is The Giving Grove being that convener?

Greg Finkle:

It has allowed us to get involved with many other organizations in Kansas City that are doing really great things, some food-related, some health-related. So I think that's one of the greatest benefits and one of the greatest learning opportunities for us is to see how we can come alongside other organizations and maybe fill a void in that regard. And I even go back to the benefits within the community. I think we were hopeful of that, but we feel like that's one of the basic strengths of the model is not just providing healthy food and all the benefits of trees, but just what it's done to create this sense of place within communities.

Kevin Birzer:

Kelly, if I could, I'd add a couple just a few minor stories. So one, just tree plannings themselves. They're just fun. Again, we laugh that we can't dig a hole very well.

Greg Finkle:

When the weather is good.

Kevin Birzer:

Yeah, when the weather's good. Thank you, Greg. But you got to dig the right way and you got to do it. But one example, I worked on planting trees at the Kauffman Foundation to the land, to the east of the building there. We did it with UMKC students and it was just so fun. You had students there, you had people from the Kauffman Foundation, you had a bunch of us trying to help on this and just the comradery. And also every time I drive by it now I look and I'm like, I helped plant some of those trees. There's something cool about that.

Kevin Birzer:

Second thing I'd say is there's been some really nice harvest festivals that have happened, just simple, just having the communities together and maybe there's a cider press and we've had cider presses at a few of our events. And I don't know if you've ever had fresh pair and apple cider mixed, but it's heavenly. And it's just so fun. And literally right off the trees and you've got fresh pears, fresh apples and somebody's doing this hand press. And it's just great.

Kevin Birzer:

I think things like little picnics and again, just small examples, but I've been down at a few locations and we just have a picnic lunch and you think whoop-de-do, but it's not a big deal, but you're in an area that it's beautified because you've got these great trees. The stewards have done a great job of keeping the grass mowed and the trees are there and you're there in the spring and there are buds on the tree and you sit down and have a picnic lunch. It's just hard to explain how fun that can be. Again, small examples. They don't change the world, but it does bring the community together in different ways.

Greg Finkle:

Actually, our first project was Hale Cook Elementary. At the time it had been decommissioned, so it's right in the middle of this neighborhood. And so we planted this orchard right on the property with Hale Cook. And there was such a strong neighborhood in that community that I think within a year, maybe two years, Hale Cook was reopened, not because of the orchard, but just because of the strength within the community. And that orchard today is still producing and creating a place for people to go.

Kelly Scanlon:

I also found an article. I don't know if that was on your website, but it was an article written recently for The Hill and talked about how the leaders that you are developing are actually developing leadership skills that they're taking elsewhere and playing bigger roles in the community.

Kevin Birzer:

Kelly, first, I think the magic of the organization are the stewards. I mean, we can have all these ideas and if you don't have someone that's going to go in and say, "I'm going to take care of this orchard. I'm going to make sure it's pruned. I'm going to make sure the grass is mowed. I'm going to make sure it looks beautiful." It goes nowhere. But then you think about that steward that's taking care of it and now suddenly they're involved in the community and they're talking to people. They are producing something that's beautiful for the community. And there's almost some natural leadership elements that start coming out of this. And it just seems like time after time, we talk to these stewards that they're just really wonderful people doing wonderful things, having a real impact on their immediate communities. It's inspiring to see. And I think through that whole process, just the leadership development that helping people, it's powerful to see.

Greg Finkle:

Along the way, I remember we were at the Kauffman Foundation and there was a group from around the country that would convene maybe annually, maybe more frequently than that. And they would take on a topic and the topic happened to be The Giving Grove. And it was basically just to ponder the concept and then to try to poke holes in it. And one of the things that I remember that was brought up was the risk of the tragedy of the commons.

Greg Finkle:

And my understanding of that concept is that if you have everybody looks out for themselves essentially. And so if you have a piece of property, will it perpetuate itself because everybody's more concerned about this little piece of it instead of the common good for the property? And I think we've proved through the stewardship program that that doesn't happen. And it's not a perfect system, of course, but back to Kevin's point, without the stewards and their commitment to the common good of the neighborhood, it just wouldn't be successful. And so those first five or six years, we were still proving that out. And we feel like the model has proven itself to the point that gets back to had an obligation to see if we could make it work in other cities.

Kelly Scanlon:

I have to remember as I'm talking with you today that you have day jobs as well. And yet in spite of how busy you were there, you had an idea that you didn't give up on. And that speaks to, what is that old adage that anybody can have a great idea, but it's only those who act on it that really make things happen. So this little idea that you had, you acted on it and that's just made all the difference. What would you tell people about getting started, acting on a vision instead of just saying, well, I'm too busy or I'm not an expert in that area? What would you advise them?

Kevin Birzer:

I feel like over the course of my business career, I've had hundreds and hundreds of ideas and I would say 99% go nowhere. They're fun ideas. They're interesting, but a lot do need to be pursued. And if you can take those to the next level and get other people involved and get some, I guess, some synergy around it and you can get the right people connected, I feel like sometimes magic happens. This was an example where we got, I think, the right group together initially. We had initial leaders that came in together that were just phenomenal that took the simple idea, Greg and Ray and I had really, it got roots. It just sprung to life. So my comment would be, I think people should always be thinking about ideas. I think they should be pursued if there are things that can do good. You have to know that not all will work. And again, the majority do not work in my case, but some do. And when they do, they're definitely worth spending some time and effort on.

Greg Finkle:

Yeah. I remember reading a book called The Coming Jobs War, which has nothing to do with orchards. But Jim Clifton, in the book, made a comment about there's lots of innovations sitting on the shelf. It's creating the demand and now that has its roots in the business world, but I think the same goes here is the demand was already there, right? People need food, but it really worked because the people that committed themselves to this, not just the stewards, but the staff at The Giving Grove, we've got wonderful people who think of others and are committed and really bright in coming up with good ideas and good at executing ideas. And so I think that's universal. I think if you get the right people in place, then you have a much better chance of success with that.

Kelly Scanlon:

Well, Kevin, Greg, and to all your team at The Giving Grove throughout the country, thank you for acting on this idea and for putting together the people who can carry it out. It obviously is far reaching and doing a lot of good. Thank you very much.

Kevin Birzer:

Thank you, Kelly.

Greg Finkle:

Thank you.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, President of Country Club Bank. Thank you to The Giving Grove founders, Greg Finkle and Kevin Birzer for being our guests on this episode of Banking on KC. It started as a grassroots effort in Kansas City less than a decade ago, The Giving Grove has blossomed into a nationwide network of hundreds of orchards, neighborhood volunteers, and community partners. The Giving Grove orchards are central to providing sustainable, healthy food alternatives in areas with high rates of food insecurity, strengthening neighborhoods and reinvigorating urban environments. Notably, none of the orchards are large yet they produce an out-sized impact. The Giving Grove is a reminder of the good that can occur when we embrace opportunities, no matter how small they may seem to make a difference. Thanks for tuning in today. We're banking on you Kansas City, Country Club Bank, member FDIC.

 

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