Meet Ryan Kuck, the Executive Director of Greensgrow Farms
Is it any surprise that Kensington bees are tough as nails? Amid warehouses abandoned during 1950s deindustrialization, addict populations, and poverty — but also surrounded by revitalized development, strong community organizations, and talented craftspeople — the bees at Greensgrow Farms have developed into a special Philadelphia line that doesn’t produce as much honey, but is disease-resistant. Three or four queens preside over each hive — a very unusual social structure that has attracted the attention of the owner of the Philadelphia Bee Company and former president of the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild. Don Shump is studying the Greensgrow bees and has relocated five hives to Georgia in an attempt to isolate and breed the genetic strain. Not much can take these Kensington bees down. They thrive in their own special communities.
The same may be said of Ryan Kuck and the neighbors he serves in Kensington and West Philadelphia. Ryan was promoted to executive director of Greensgrow Farms last year. Founder Mary Seton Corboy, who died of cancer in August last year, groomed him to step into her role.
“I kept saying no, but loyalty won out,” Ryan said. Over 11 years he held a series of leadership positions at Greensgrow. He knew everyone well and they knew him, and was uniquely suited to take the helm.
From his first days in Philly, Ryan has been a strong presence; it just took a couple of detours for him to find his path. He moved here from Tennessee in 1999 to be with a girlfriend who left him for a Belgian prince just before he arrived. “At least she chose royalty over me,” he laughs.
But the altered plans led to a pensive, questioning period. “I had begun studying architecture and urban issues at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), but it was very theoretical. I couldn’t even build a shed!”
One day he saw a flier about planting carrots for children and his hunger for tangible work was engaged. “Soon I stopped going to classes and started working for the Urban Nutrition Initiative (UNI),” Ryan said. “That’s where I wrapped my arms around youth.” He worked with teens and started a gardens program under the mentorship of Danny Gerber, UNI’s director.
Ryan seems to come from a line of tough Tennesseans. Missing those southern mountains and interested in Buddhism, he decided to undertake volunteer work in Asia in 2001 and arrived in Nepal two weeks after 11 members of the royal family were murdered by Crown Prince Dipendra. The Maoist Rebellion had been underway since 1996, but after a new king was crowned, the insurgency exploded due to failed peace talks, and a nationwide state of emergency was declared. Undaunted, his whole family came to visit him. “Troops were rounding up young males and people were being helicoptered out,” Ryan said, “yet here came the Kucks from Tennessee!”
Months later, 9/11 occurred. “I didn’t even hear about it for five days,” he said. “We were pretty isolated there. Any communication had to be translated from Chinese to Hindi to Nepalese to English.”
Ryan negotiated independent-study credit toward his degree for his Asian work-adventure. “I learned a lot,” he said. “Nothing theoretical about it.”
He reinvigorated his degree program, adding anthropology/archeology, and graduated in 2003. “I was searching for something grounding,” he said, “and I found it.” After graduation he continued working for the UNI and began to exchange letters with a UPenn friend who had moved away. She returned to Philadelphia in 2006 so that they could officially start dating. They bought a fixer-upper (no roof, no plumbing) in Belmont five months later.
Suzanna and Ryan made the house a home with their own elbow grease and the help of friends and got to know their neighbors. They started a personal garden and then helped cultivate other gardens in the neighborhood. Because many folks were elderly or had limited mobility, Suzanna created pushcart delivery of veggies, plums, berries, flowers and herbs. They soon added fruit from Greensgrow. Demand grew, until the pushcart became a truck and included locally baked goods, and the effort was named the Fresh Food Hub (FFH).
The Philadelphia Orchard Project (POP) was founded in the Belmont area in 2007 and Ryan started lending a hand, adding perennial crops to the fruit-tree land and becoming a board member. POP plants in vacant lots, community gardens, schoolyards, and other urban spaces, almost exclusively in low-income neighborhoods where people lack access to fresh fruit. The POP has planted more than a thousand trees and supports 56 orchards.
After six years with the UNI, Ryan joined Greensgrow in 2006 and the FFH came along as Greensgrow’s mobile market. Suzanna and Ryan have since gotten married and are now parents of four-year-old twins, Julian and Oliver. They also have a cat, Harley, and a dog, Kermit. Somehow they found time to start Preston’s Paradise, a resource for improving community health, happiness, and sustainability in the Mantua and Belmont neighborhoods of Philadelphia. Preston’s Paradise is an all-volunteer organization focused on food security, neighborhood beautification, natural building and energy conservation.
Greensgrow is a wondrous place, with locations on Baltimore Avenue and East Cumberland Street featuring an urban farm (20 vegetables! 2,000 pounds of fresh produce!), a massive greenhouse, a farmstand (“Greensgrow Grown”), a community kitchen (“Greensgrow Made”), a shop, a venue for weddings and events, classes, and much more. The seasonal opening celebration (March 25 – 26) included an honoring of Corboy and Greensgrow’s 20-year presence as nurturing forces in Philadelphia.
The next big event will enlist an army of volunteers for neighborhood planting, clean up, and free lunch on April 20 – 21 (to coincide with Earth Day on the 22nd). Also, be sure to put Saturday, June 10 on your calendar for a 20-year anniversary party and benefit: A Taste of Kensington at the Philadelphia Brewing Company, 6PM – 10PM, featuring chef samples and entertainment. Tickets are available here: http://www.greensgrow.org/event/taste-kensington-20th-anniversary-benefit-greensgrow/
Come by Greensgrow one day soon to say hello to Ryan, his 40 colleagues, Milkshake the pig (who dabbles in politics), Ping the duck (quite friendly and conversational), plus various fish and turtles. You can go home with “Honey from the Hood” and everything you need to start your own urban garden. •