Growing Oshkosh: Growing Fish, Food, Flowers, Jobs…and Hope.

Growing_Oshkosh_6293_lr“Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.”  –Dale Carnegie

Now, I’m not the type of person who would normally quote a Carnegie, nor have I actually read any of his self-help/self-improvement books (though I probably should!)  But this particular quote really strikes a chord with me.  And I’ll tell you why.

In the fall of 2008, hope was all I could think about.  After having worked years in the non-profit fundraising world, I had come to the obvious conclusion it was time to follow my dreams and earn a master’s degree in environmental studies.  My plan was to pursue an eventual career in collegiate or corporate sustainability, or perhaps sustainable community planning.

I searched and searched for an applicable, accredited program, and eventually found one, at Green Mountain College, in the quaint little one-stop-sign town of Poultney, Vermont. I flew there for my residency in early September 2008, bursting with hope and excitement for the future.

This is exactly what I want to be doing, I told myself, over and over again, as each hour I spent in Vermont (or in my online classes) was costing me literally hundreds and thousands of dollars!  And for the brief, hopeful months of September, October and early November 2008, I, like the rest of us waiting for Obama’s Change, thought we had finally entered an actual era of hope.Growing_Oshkosh_6413_lr

And then, of course, just a few weeks after the election, the bottom fell out of the universe, or so it seemed.

I continued to take my classes, and learn everything I could about this relatively new concept of “bioregionalism,” how it applied to me, and the fact I had lived my entire life (minus one brief semester) in one place—Oshkosh.  I had spent years, and I mean years, trying to “escape Oshkosh” but for one reason or another, this place had a firm grip on me!

In the meantime, I had taken a full-time fundraising job with a regional land trust whose mission was to preserve and restore the prairies of the Upper Midwest.  I learned so much during that time—not just about the vanishing prairie ecosystem and how dire the situation is—but also about myself, and my relationship to my hometown, to the people, plants and animals who also inhabit Winnebagoland.

Finally, in the summer of 2010, I had finished all my classes.  Hooray!  Woo hoo!  Now just a few more months to write my thesis and I can finally graduate!

Ha ha ha!  Yeah.  Right.  (Does it ever really take just two years?!  Oh, reality, you cruel construct!)

I struggled—and I mean, struggled—to come up with a thesis topic and idea that I still, at the time, actually believed in.  2010 was another election year, and I don’t know what it is about even-numbered years in this town, but bitter divisiveness and partisan politics had soured me on being able to accomplish anything in the way of sustainability.

So I immersed myself in other things, trying to keep at least slightly happy and cheerful, as I struggled to complete my degree, by gardening and native landscaping.  Picking out the colors and textures I wanted, touching and feeling the soil, the seeds, nurturing the little seedlings (til the rabbits ate them all!  Gggrrr!) I loved this feeling!  I was sensing— physically, mentally, and emotionally—that I was actually becoming happier, and more hopeful to boot.

And then it hit me.

All I wanted to do was grow food and flowers—especially for local people and native habitats who need it most. Aha!  An epiphany! YES!  Local food and flower production!  Of course!  Something I’d been dreaming of since Will Allen presented years ago during our Earth Charter Community Summit Slow/Local Food Banquet.  In fact, I said to him at that time, “Will, I would follow you to the end of the Earth.”  And so I did, or at least, close to it, when I followed him down to Milwaukee where both he, and his daughter, Erika, among many others, taught me how to become an urban farmer.

The journey to creating Growing Oshkosh had begun!  As I started to pen our non-profit Mission and Vision Statements, Goals & Objectives, etc., there was one word that didn’t quite seem to fit the litany of “growing” words I was writing.  I knew “growing fresh, healthy fish, food and flowers” made sense.   But I wanted to also infuse a very hopeful message—that through the process of growing fish, food and flowers, we’d also be growing jobs, and community, and habitat, and well, there was no stopping what we could grow, if we only had hope.

Which brings me back to Carnegie’s quote.

Hope had brought me this far.  Hope kept me going, kept me plugging away at life and school and bettering my community, and it was hope that would propel this idea, this organization, this urban farm/community food project into what it is today.

On October 6, we will be erecting the first ever Oshkosh “Hooperhouse” adjacent to, and in partnership with, the Hooper Community Center (36 Broad Street).  This year-round, indoor, job-creating greenhouse-type structure will literally grow fresh, local fish, food, flowers, jobs…and hope.  We will do so with the help of many, many community partners, including the United Way, Cerebral Palsy/ARC, UW Oshkosh, Habitat for Humanity, and the Women’s Fund of the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation.  In fact, it was the twelve or so women sitting around a table this spring (some of whom, themselves, had little to no hope for the future) discussing the issues of isolation and loneliness as they relate to the women of Oshkosh, who saw the passionate, hopeful look in my eyes when I presented the idea of Growing Oshkosh to them, and who, in turn, filled me with hope (in the form of a $10,000 grant to sow the seeds of sustainability!)

Hope is here.  Hope is growing.  It’s finally happening, and I can feel the energy rising in this community, in my hometown—not in Madison, not in Milwaukee, not in Stevens Point—but here, in Oshkosh, by and for the people of Oshkosh.  (And it’s about time!)

I can literally see hope in the eyes of the Head Start children and their families, who now have a raised vegetable garden, a new flower garden, and (coming soon) a brand new mud kitchen at their facility, thanks to the hope, passion and drive of our board and other community volunteers.

Hope will prosper and absolutely flourish at our urban farm headquarters on Bay Shore Drive, and eventually, throughout Winnebagoland as we partner with local agencies, institutions and businesses to create a diverse network of commercial and educational demonstration sites.  Our very first Hooperhouse, in fact, will be ADA accessible, open to the public, and will (hopefully—there’s that word) be an inviting and awe-inspiring living learn lab for school children and adult learners everywhere.

Hope brought us this far, and it will drive us forward from here on out.  Hope is at the heart our mission—it is the very essence of our vision.  And hope will be at the very core of each and every goal we set for ourselves, and for our community.

I know I speak for the entire Growing Oshkosh board of directors, our volunteers, and all our community partners when I say, I hope you all will join us as we build, grow and evolve a more socially responsible, ecologically aware, economically viable—and a more hopeful—Oshkosh.


For more information on how to get involved with Growing Oshkosh, please contact Dani Stolley, Founder & President, at 920.421.4104; via email at; or visit us at

Growing Oshkosh would also like to thank Mark & Susy’s Piggly Wiggly of Oshkosh for donating over six tons (that’s over 12,000 pounds!) of veggie waste in order to grow our own soil, and to the House of Flowers of Oshkosh for their generous donation of over 1000 pots and seed starting trays.

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