Alum John Chiles on how, alongside his father – also a BGI/Presidio alum – he became involved with Ozarks Renewal and the Hope’s Garden Project. Read more to learn about the incredible work taking place at Ozarks Renewal and what it means for the future of regenerative farming.
Hello, John! Thanks for connecting with us. Can you tell us more about Ozarks Renewal and your journey to co-founding it?
Ozarks Renewal is a development company my dad and I started together to develop a greenhouse project called Hope’s Garden.
After college, I lived in the Pacific Northwest for about ten years and spent a lot of time learning different skills, including carpentry, cleantech, and finally, working with startup financing. My dad (another BGI/Presidio grad) needed some help building a financial model for an unusual food project he had been recruited to develop, using industrial waste heat to heat a greenhouse. As we dug into it and started talking to folks in the Ozarks and around the U.S., we realized the potential for this project was much bigger than just a commercial greenhouse. It had the potential to become a catalyst for the long-term renewal of Ozark’s local food systems.
For those of us not familiar with regenerative farming, can you break down what this entails?
To paraphrase the great Wes Jackson, conventional farming as it’s practiced is the ecological equivalent of deficit spending; we are spending more of the earth’s resources (in terms of fossil fuels, soil, and water), then we are putting back; eventually the “bank account” is going to run out. Essentially right now, we are subsidizing the exceptional productivity of our current extractive food system with oil, natural gas, and easy water, which will have negative long-term consequences. The idea of regenerative agriculture is that you can grow food with science, smart practices, and earth wisdom that doesn’t deplete resources and can actually help and heal the earth. It is much more complex, though, and takes care and attention, particularly at scale.
Where did your interest in pursuing a career in this field begin?
Happenstance plays a big part in our life plans. My dad Mike needed help on this greenhouse project, and while I was happy to help him, I really didn’t want to move from Seattle to the Ozarks! However, I went to a remarkable regenerative food conference in Albuquerque and was amazed by the curiosity, energy, and excitement in everyone I talked to. I decided that these were the kind of people I wanted to work with, so in a sense, initially, it was more about the people than the project. Additionally, over time I acquired an unusual toolkit of skills. I have experience in startup finance, renewal energy, camp counseling, working with construction teams, and generally creating clear work plans for very confusing projects – food systems, and particularly this project, aligned well with that. I’ve found that I can be happy doing any number of things but working with great people is a must for me. Also, I’ve worked with hundreds of investors and entrepreneurs, and my dad Mike is the smartest entrepreneur I know, and I figured I could learn a few things from him too. And I have!
Are there any projects Ozarks Renewal is working on right now?
What we are working on
We are developing a three-acre hydroponic greenhouse (Hope’s Garden) that will primarily use waste heat from the Bluebird data center in Springfield (owned by Macquarie Group) to heat the greenhouse. Heating a greenhouse is a huge carbon footprint, as is transporting the produce.
After the greenhouse is fully operational, a substantial portion of the profits will be used to begin a regional food hub to help our area farmers gain access to large retailers under the Hope’s Garden label. The project’s third phase will include an Agriculture Accelerator providing training, mentorship, and market access to beginner farmers. Our focus at this point is to get the greenhouse built, running, and profitable. The food hub and Ag accelerator will follow in the future.
Why are we doing this?
In addition to carbon mitigation, there is a substantial social benefit to the program. The greenhouse is a catalyst for the resurgence of small-scale agriculture in the Ozarks and elsewhere. We believe this is a scalable and repeatable model for other foodsheds across the United States. After talking to hundreds of farmers and food leaders in our community, we’ve learned two things: the first being it’s virtually impossible to start farming unless you inherit a farm. Barriers of education, business training, market access, and capital are nearly insurmountable. And two, small farmers need more than farmers’ markets to survive. 90% of farmers need second jobs because they just can’t sell enough to survive on their own. Lack of access to local markets is a key barrier. Food Hubs require capital, market access, and dependable funding to scale to profitability. Combining these elements with a profitable greenhouse ensures long-term financial viability and success. A portion of the profits will be used to help offset the costs of operating a beginning farmer training center with a focus on helping small landholders be self-supporting.
The greenhouse is a scalable and repeatable model to catalyze the resurgence of regional and local agriculture. This includes developing consumer-branded local food production from small farms while creating opportunities for our next generation of farmers.
Which degree program did you pursue at Pinchot? Are there any experiences from your time as a student that stands out and have inspired your work?
My MBA had an emphasis on finance. Being around inspiring, generous people made me want to do more to help others and to uncover and refine what my unique contribution was; the intersection of storytelling, recruiting, and finance. Gifford and Libba Pinchot taught me a lot just by their example. I had an entrepreneurship course with Ted Ladd and Casey Dilloway, which was invaluable in learning how to think about entrepreneurship. That course and a leadership and personal development course were essential. Working at the E8 angel group in Seattle felt like an additional MBA because I could apply what I learned.
How did you learn about Pinchot? Was there an “ah-ha” moment when you realized Pinchot was the place for you?
It sounds like I am making this up, but the true story is that I was walking my dog in Missouri about 12 years ago, and a college professor (from a state school in Missouri) hollered at me from the sidewalk: “John, I wouldn’t send you to just any MBA program, you need to go to Pinchot. Trust me, check it out!”
Fast forward eight months, I moved back out to Oregon, was working construction, and knew that I needed to do something more rewarding. Remembering my college professor’s recommendation, I decided to visit Pinchot and was electrified by the people. It felt like a business school camp! On that visit, I decided that I was going to go. I didn’t think about it much; it just seemed right. And it was.
You’re also a Presidio Teaching Assistant and will be teaching a new elective course at Presidio this Spring! Can you tell us more about how you became involved as a TA?
I loved my MBA, but I didn’t feel like I had absorbed as much learning as I could (at the time, I was more interested in socializing than spreadsheets), so being a Presidio TA was a great opportunity to re-engage with the learning. I did that for a couple of years after graduation, then disengaged when I moved back to Missouri to work on the greenhouse. Fast forward five years, the legendary Casey Dilloway invited me to be his TA again for a finance class, and who can say no to Casey? It’s been outstanding. I am very impressed by the students’ drive, character, and creativity. The experience has been very humbling and inspiring.
This Spring, you’ll be teaching a new course titled Impact Investing. What can you tell us about this course? What are some of the key lessons you hope students take from your course?
Impact investing is learning how to use a powerful toolkit of philanthropy, venture capital, banking, and other forms of money to empower people to create a more positive, safer, and regenerative world. The most important thing is to understand how funders make decisions, what they fund, and how they decide what is worth investing in. In our class, students will begin to grasp what the ecosystem is, and at the end, will have designed their own mock funds to address projects or companies addressing a key issue area, like water, education, etc. I hope students will come away empowered to ask good questions and either know more about finance, eventually start their funds, or work in impact investing.
What excites you most about being a part of Presidio’s community? And to that end, what about Presidio makes you hopeful for the future?
I love the people; they are inspiring and encouraging to me. It gives me hope to know that there are people who believe that a better world is possible and commit themselves to make that happen. Our job is to encourage, train, and connect them so that they can do it.
What advice would you give to anyone considering Presidio Graduate School? What about anyone interested in a career in a field like yours?
If you’re interested, come visit! That’s the easiest next step. I think talking to students who are in it will help you discern if it’s the right path for you.
Career advice: cultivate the small voice of your inner self and learn to listen to it. Learn that delicate balance of polite persistence. Public speaking is the most important skill you can develop. It is terrifying at first, but you will get better with practice. Learn the art of short emails, and most importantly, learn how to ask people for help.
Beyond that, I believe that life is less about WHAT you want to do; it’s more about WHO you want to become. So, ask yourself: what are your values? What kind of people do you want to surround yourself with in life? What excites and energizes you? Who do you admire? Consider asking them about their journey over coffee.
What general skills or inclinations in yourself do you want to grow? This will help you get started. Then focus on who you want to be; write it on an index card and read it every morning.
Your life is like a beautiful oak tree. It may seem like nothing is happening, but you are growing. Uncovering our vocation is a life-long pursuit; like most good things in life, it takes time. Hang in there.
Thank you, John, for sharing your journey as a Presidian changemaker! Contact us today if you’re interested in learning more about Presidio Graduate School and how our MBA, MPA, Dual Degree, and Certificate programs can help advance your career as a sustainability leader.
Learn more about Ozark’s Renewal and Hope’s Project!