When I first talked to Glenn Ford, he was blaring jazz in his old Chrysler van while rocketing across Pennsylvania on one of the cross country “milk runs”—not an uncommon occurrence for Ford during his yearslong quest to become the largest aquaponic farmer in America. He was a week out from finally getting the bonding—$238 million’s worth—to develop a string of aquaponic farms in seven different areas across the Midwest, which would instantly make him, at the age of 66, one of the biggest players in an industry that’s been the next big thing in carbon-neutral farming for years. Minnesota will host one of these 25-acre sites. Each of them will incorporate high-tech LED lighting and a water circulation system that will produce 38 million pounds of produce and 750,000 pounds of fish annually, all while employing 130 people at sites that run around the clock. Ford says he will gladly consider himself a farmer as soon as the first facility comes on line, even while conceding the title might seem like a stretch coming from somebody who’s never even been much of a gardener.
Ford grew up as a self-described “jock/nerd” on the South Side of Chicago—a student athlete who went from taking care of a gym for his Catholic Youth Organization to starring in a bigger one as a Division II basketball player at Eastern Illinois before getting his master’s in business management at Northwestern. After that, he worked his way through the ranks of the corporate food industry until he wound up in Minneapolis, with a wife and two kids and a heavily used frequent-flier card (he jetted to different parts of the country on a daily basis).
“Food and farming are the two biggest industries in the world,” he says, “and they’re closely related.”
Ford says 50 percent of Americans have worked in the food industry by the time they’re 30, whether as a busser or a line cook or a delivery truck driver or a farmhand. And by the time he was in his mid-40s, he had been privy to the power of the food industry at its highest levels—seeing its influence on almost every aspect of society, from global warming to food deserts to wage disparity in both inner-city and rural communities. And he realized, as close as he was to the food industry’s levers of power, he wasn’t in a position where he could have the kind of profound impact that could actually make a difference. So he gave up the Porsche and the house on the big lot in Medina and the unhappy marriage and endeavored to build something that was his own.
“Going into entrepreneurship, you put everything at risk,” he says. “And I did, over and over and over again.”
It was in the second half of his life where all his successes and failures began to add up into a sort of practical wisdom, something he felt he could share with others. Ford finally found his calling not only as an entrepreneur but also as a teacher, offering classes first through the Kauffman Foundation’s FastTrac program and later through the Small Business Administration’s Emerging 200 Initiative. His class was like a mini MBA for business owners, and the people who took it—people like Saed Wadi, the co-owner of World Street Kitchen; Ruhel Islam, the owner of Gandhi Mahal; and Mercedes Austin of Mercury Mosaics—still consider Ford to be a mentor.
“His class changed my future,” says Austin. “He taught me that I didn’t need to limit what I could do based on what I already knew how to do—I could think bigger.”
And Islam, who had his own substantive aquaponics operation in the basement of his restaurant until the building burned down in the 2020 riots, says Ford taught him how to build his own network.
“As a brown guy with a lot of rich guys around me,” he says, “[Glenn] made me feel like somebody.”
When Ford and I get a chance to sit down in person, we meet at World Street Kitchen. Wadi plies us with slow-cooked lamb slathered in WSK’s signature yum yum sauce and brussels sprouts, along with a salad with fried chickpeas. Wadi greets Ford like he is his old Jedi master—and maybe he is.
“He will understand the complexity of your situation,” Wadi gushed about Ford and the difference he can make. “And he will focus on it and help you with a simple thing that is maybe in front of you, but you didn’t see it.”
For the next couple hours, Ford explains how all the pieces of his life have come together. How his burgeoning success in the aquaponics business is the culmination of his years of immersion in the food industry. And that, looking back, it was those years of learning that ironically nearly prevented him from thinking big enough to make his current success happen. They’re also what makes him uniquely outfitted to advise others who are trying to break through to the other side, because he’s been there.
“When I was helping other people make money, it was no problem,” says Ford. “But getting to this scale with the amount of capital going into my project, I’m not going to sugarcoat it—it was harder than hell.”
So, while the road to get here may have been a little bit longer than a saxophone solo on one of his cross-country playlists, Ford believes the journey has been worth it. The problems the food industry is encountering on myriad fronts—the continued disruption of the industry by climate change; massive supply chain issues, including a newfound scarcity of natural resources as important as water; and the ongoing dearth of good-paying jobs in areas where they used to be plentiful—can actually be resolved, he believes, by aquaponics.
Why is aquaponics the future of food?
Because it is the perfect balance of how we should be raising and growing food with the environment. By its very nature, it has to be balanced. With aquaponics, we’ll grow plants in half the amount of time that it would normally take outside. And it’s precision growing—we create the perfect environment for each plant. You could tell me you want something delivered at 9 o’clock at night; we can make it so it will be ripe by 9 o’clock at night.
What do you mean by balance?
That it’s like Mother Nature, where everything is used and nothing is wasted. This balance is unlike the majority of outdoor farming, where there are excessive nitrates, erosion, and runoff. We’ve got an entire ecosystem that’s functioning, and we’re really close to net zero.
It feels like aquaponics has been touted as the next big thing for, like, the last 10 years, but it hasn’t really happened yet.
True, it’s a nascent industry in the entire U.S. That has a whole lot to do with how much money it costs. The Dutch have been doing this for nearly three decades.
Sure, the Dutch learned how to grow everything from tomatoes to weed indoors because they had to—they had to get creative with creating arable land.
It reminds me: When my son was young, my wife told him we didn’t have money for something. He says, “Well, Mom, if you don’t have money, just go to the bank; that’s where the money is.” He didn’t understand any of the other connections to it. It’s the same thing with our food system.
We enjoy restaurants, but we have no idea that, really, the average restaurant is a manufacturing facility, and we don’t see all the stuff that that entrepreneur had to do to make this presentation possible. It is absolutely that way in our food system.
And to go back to my kid’s example, you want some more food, you just go to the store. America doesn’t see limits. When did we finally decide that indeed there’s climate change?
I don’t think we’ve had that reckoning yet.
We’re still wrestling with it, right? What’s really starting to get our attention, though, is California running out of water. Now, all of a sudden, we’re going, “Oh, shit, what are we going to do about water?” Well, we better start, first of all, not wasting so much. So it’s starting to sink in, but it’s slow. Americans don’t get things until you hit them across the head with a baseball bat. And now some climate things are hitting us in the head, hard, and we’re having to recognize that we’ve got to do something about it.
You’re on the cusp of becoming one of the biggest indoor farmers in America, but let’s back up. You worked in the food industry for decades before dropping out of corporate America and becoming a teacher—so many restaurateurs in this town have taken your class.
I was in the scientific products division at American Hospital Supply in Deerfield, Illinois. And the food industry bought a lot of chemicals—my second-largest account was Kraft. At one time, I was the number two guy in that division of the company. I had gone to every major lab in the country. If you were Pfizer, if you were Johnson and Johnson, if you were Merck, I had been to all of those companies on the science side, and food, again, was a big client. Then I was with PepsiCo in New York before moving to Dallas after being spun off into a Pepsi subsidiary called Yum! Brands. They own a lot of the fast-food stuff—Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, et cetera.
What changed for you?
Ultimately, I found I was working against my own value system. And the lie that I told myself, because I was being paid a lot of money, is, “Look, I’m a marketer. I just do my thing, and the food choice is your own.” And while you’re there, you got to test a whole lot of the product, so all of a sudden, I’m eating a whole lot of shit that I really don’t want to eat.
At that time, I was really into fitness. And one day I was actually sitting in a meeting at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and we were making some decisions on the chicken. And I’m looking at all these high-powered people all making really good money—I’m talking 300 grand a year in the 1990s. And I’m looking around the table, and I internally smirk to myself and say, You know what, my mother never went to college—went to two years of high school and she could make a better decision on that chicken right now than any of us eggheads sitting around the table.
What kind of fitness plan were you on?
There was a period of time that I was working out with bodybuilders, and they were doing it naturally, and they knew a whole lot about our metabolism. And so I started to recognize that, boy, these guys eat a pretty on-point diet to rid yourself of fat, to rid yourself of sodium.
Green smoothies or something?
Yeah. You look at your macronutrients, make sure that you get the right amount of protein and the right amounts of other food so that your system is working well. And I would say that that goes back 15 years for me. It’s only recently when I’ve become sort of a slug.
When did you figure out that you wanted to change the food system rather than working within it?
For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out how to chase my business ambition at the same time as my social purpose. I was involved, but people wanted more out of you than just you writing a check, right? People want to know if people will join them. They’re not saying, “Give me a handout.” And that’s what I see when the big banks are always making these big announcements like, “We’re going to give $50 million of guilt capital to minority groups because we’ve been screwing them for 20 years.”
And why is that?
Because they have a lot of money. There’s always a place to put money. And so what they do is they go with people that they know, that they’re comfortable with, and then that poor person—and when I say poor, meaning only in capital, not that they don’t have ability—then someone trying to make something happen in North Minneapolis gets completely missed.
When did you realize that your economic values weren’t aligned with your social values?
It was really at Pepsi. When I worked in the pharmaceutical industry, I was an executive at that point, pretty high level, and so my feet didn’t touch the ground a lot. In the fast-food industry, your feet, if you are being conscious at all, are just right there. You see who your customers are. And Pepsi, and several of the other companies I had worked for, didn’t do a real good job with diversity at the executive level for the longest time. How could that be? Making chicken is not that hard. Giving pop the right amount of carbonation in the syrup, not that hard.
And so what happens is you find how people get hired frequently has a lot to do with personal connection. And that’s the same way with raising capital. You have to know people who can write those kinds of checks, and the world gets really small when you start asking for millions. You can find a lot of people who’ll do a hundred thousand, three hundred, maybe even a half a million. But boy, you get over that magic number of a million, you’ve got to know some people.
Did any of your executive peers look like you?
No. And I mean, when I sit down with people to talk about money, I’m the only Black guy in the room, unless I bring one of my buddies. The U.S. is really good at being exclusive; we’re not really good at being inclusive.
And even though you take a person of color and you send them to a nice school, you’re sending them there to be more exclusive. I went to Northwestern. OK, in my class of 70 people, there were two or three of us. So, is there a side of me that’s upset about it? The answer’s yes.
But I look at it both ways. I mean, there are a lot of white people who don’t truly have a Black friend—I mean a serious Black friend in your top 10 friends that you know. I contend it’s their loss. I get the opportunity to pull from my friend here, or a white guy who lives here, or an Asian person here: I’ve got the world. I believe that my vision is clear as a consequence of who I can pull from.
When did you leave the corporate world?
I was living in Minneapolis. At that time, I’m in my 40s. I was flying back and forth. I was on a plane every day. I literally would go in for a meeting that lasted until noon. I don’t think I was ever burned out, but I was searching for meaning. Like Viktor E. Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, I wanted my story to be one of a caring person who gave back, who helped all of us. That matters to me.
And the places I felt that needed a lot of help were inner cities. I did some business turnarounds. I’d go to people whose businesses were in trouble and then help them work their way out of that. By the way, typically, the magic to helping people whose businesses are in trouble is just giving the entrepreneur enough time or a place to decompress for a little bit, and letting them tell you their story.
So, it’s like a kind of business therapy?
Yeah. It is. It’s business therapy. The skill is deep listening. I believe that you can solve 90 percent of problems by deep listening. The challenge is we don’t listen to each other a lot, and we like listening to ourselves talk, so we miss the point. The way I like to think about it is I don’t know everything, but I know people who do. I learned as much as anyone who came to the class, by the way. The real leaders I respect in the country are the small businesses who give a damn and only ask for an even break in competing. We have tilted the balance of power from small businesses—who still employ the most people in this country—to a scenario where the most advantage is reserved for the largest of institutions, who create barriers for those mid-level businesses we sorely need. My hat is off to the small companies who devote their lives to running a successful venture and who care deeply for their communities and their employees.
How did you go from that to trying to develop multimillion-dollar aquaponic farms?
It started, believe it or not, with wanting to put grocery stores in communities of color because they didn’t have them. And I know a lot about food. However, a grocery store is, profitability-wise, on the low end, and I couldn’t get it funded appropriately.
So, I fought back and said, “Well, the only way that you can really run great grocery stores is to be involved on the production side of things.” You sell your own brands because the margin gets eaten away from someone who produces it. It sits in their warehouse, and then they ship it somewhere else, but in the meantime, that middle person is snatching away all the profitability.
I wanted to go with the model that you see in all the foreign companies that are coming over, Lidl and others. And what they’re doing is they’re going to a farm and they’re saying, “You just hit the lotto—we’ll buy everything that you produce.” They cut the middleman out.
A lot of us understand food deserts to be in inner cities, but they’re also in underprivileged rural areas. Your development plan with the aquaponic farms seems to recognize this—you’re building some of these facilities in exurban areas well outside of Pittsburgh and Chicago and Minneapolis.
The American way is to colorize anything that we are struggling with. There’s a great book, The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee, and she talks about how Americans are hurting themselves because they have a tendency to colorize everything. That’s a Black guy problem, that’s an immigrant problem, that’s a whatever. No, it’s an American problem.
America’s also learning the importance of immigrants—they take chances on things that other Americans don’t. By and large, when you go through the American educational system, they don’t train you to be an entrepreneur; they train you to go work for X, Y, Z major corporation. And immigrants come here and go, “Boy, I was so accustomed to this thing from my home country, and they don’t have it here, so I’m going to go start this.”
Does the food industry do anything well?
They say that there are 10 major corporations that run the world’s food system, and one of them is here. You’ve got Cargill here, they’re a big player. I’m not taking a shot at them; I’m just saying that the food system is in a very small number of hands—and they don’t reach everybody, and they don’t particularly care about everybody.
I’m one of these people who believes that your anger doesn’t count for shit—that just sitting around and being cynical doesn’t count for anything. I’m action-oriented, so unless you’re willing to do the action, it’s not worth the quibble. And then I traveled around the world, too. I went to South of France with my girlfriend, and we spent seven days there. And I had a chance to be in the Cahors area, if you know that part of France. And I just saw that local connection to food in a really different way and how even on their menus that they will talk about how it came from this farm.
Then I’ve read Alice Waters’s stuff and others’, so there are these connections. And I also found out that the food that was being produced was just better. Even with limited space, it was better.
In your TED Talk, you said there were 95 million people not participating in the labor force, and that was in 2019. And you argue that the food industry is such a massive employer that it can take up some of that slack.
We’re actually going through a really interesting point in our society right now. The jobs are out there, right? The food industry was overdue for some price adjustments, but I contend that the way we treat people is a very militaristic way of employment. I believe that business owners should charm the people that work for them.
What else can the food industry do to be part of the solution?
We’ve got a whole lot more junk food that people are eating. So, if we got people to eat better, fresher things, their health would improve, our hospital bills would go down, and we would need more people to help provide some of that good food. The food industry can help directly improve our overall quality of life. So there’s all this room for us to do a lot more exciting things with food. There are over 200,000 edible plants that, as humans, we can eat. Predominantly, in America, we’re eating a hundred of them. Plants form about 80 percent of where we get the solutions for medicines. So, when you would hear all the stories about “Don’t cut down the Amazon; there may be something there that we need as a cancer solution”—in aquaponics, we have a tool where you can actually grow some of those plants. So, there’s a lot more room for what we could do on both the taste and the nutraceutical sides of things.
Originally published in the December 2021 issue.