“People have been asking me how I got involved with Drops of Good [The Maxwell House Community Project.] I tell them it’s because of the inordinate amount of coffee I drink.”
And so begins Mark Schlereth’s introductory remarks preceding the ribbon-cutting of the newly renovated The GrowHaus. The Haus (I love saying that, with as much accent as I can muster up. It sounds so Lady Gaga) was one of five nation-wide recipients of up to $50,000 worth of renovations. It received over two million votes, and out of the five centers chosen, it is unique in that it is the only organic farming-based community outreach system. Rebuilding Together helped out with the renovations.
After speaking with Mark for even five minutes, it’s obvious that his belief in the project goes farther than a bottomless mug of dark roast. “This project is the lifeblood that courses through the veins of the community,” he says. And in Mark’s case, it’s his community too. Mark moved to Denver in 1995 and is a three-time Super Bowl Champion with our Broncos. He is currently an NFL analyst on ESPN and strives to stay involved in the community as well as internationally. Since before Drops of Good, Mark and his family have been involved in Denver Rescue Mission, Double Angel Foundation, and Generosity Water, which places family wells in Africa.
“I just find it all so fascinating,” says Mark, sitting up a little straighter in his chair, like he’s about to start talking football. “I got an education on hydroponics and aquaponics when I got here [to The GrowHaus], and I couldn’t believe it; one acre at a hydrofarm is the equivalent to four acres at a regular farm and uses 10% of the water… It’s just fascinating.”
This hydro-doohickee is a circulating nutrient solution that is used instead of soil and, as Mark said, is able to produce per-square-foot yields many times greater. This allows for nutrient-rich crops to be distributed to residents of the community at an affordable price or grown for restaurants in town. I was able to walk through the Haus, which was busily buzzing with volunteers, and around every corner was another table-height planter filled with leafy greens. There were signs with painted flowers and suns and bugs surrounding quotes, or cautionary instructions like, “No hands in the water, the fish are sensitive!” and a picture of a very surly looking tilapia.
And sensitive indeed, as I saw a few minutes later. Some of these tilapia (real ones, not the painted ones) were captured in nets and Tawyna, of Colorado Aquaponics, got a nice, swift jab from a tilapia spike straight to the thumb vein. Yowza! The sunlight filtered down through the roofing, glinting off the scales of that feisty fish as it frantically flopped, trying to evade capture. I certainly don’t blame it; I would throw a spike too, if I were about to be someone’s lunch. Once the fishies quieted down (eek! Poor guys!), I peered down into their little pond, which was partially under a table with big green plants spilling off the top.
“Mmm, smells like fresh tomatoes over here,” I said out loud. “Smells good.”
“Well these are tomato plants,” said a fellow standing next to me.
I turned to look at this smart-alec. “I figured. Thanks for THAT.” He and his friend laughed, and it turns out I was standing in front of an aquaponic ecosystem, with two of the lads who keep it up and running. An aquaponic system is where fish and plants are raised together in a circulating, high-yield setup. Mike (the smart-alec) and Steve, both of Colorado Aquaponics, also do educational demonstrations as part of the Haus outreach program. “We’re basically the entity of knowledge of aquaponics,” said Steve, and I don’t doubt it.
Besides the aquaponics demonstrations with Steve and Mike, there are hands-on programs designed to educate (duh) and get people excited about what goes on in the Haus. “What I found to be the most surprising about The GrowHaus is the educational aspect,” says Mark, gesturing with his Maxwell House coffee cup for emphasis. “[People who live in the area] are learning how to eat well and take care of themselves. Children are becoming aware of dietary effects of what they eat and it’s like a ripple effect throughout the community. It’ll go on for generations.” As Mark explained it to me, in his eyes, as well as those of countless others, like all the volunteers at The GrowHaus today, that kind of legacy and that kind of wealth is the most important kind. Anyone can make a bunch of money, or be a big enough badass that they’ll live comfortably or remembered or whatever, but this knowledge and ability to help others learn and grow for generations is a living legacy. It’ll grow exponentially.
“If you look at everything that needs to be done in the world, nothing would ever get done. You can’t look at it like that. If we all contribute a little bit, a little drop, it all adds up.”
“To a full cup!” I say.
He laughs. “Exactly, to a full cup.” He looks thoughtful for a moment. “I like that.”