Kimbal Musk’s Quest to Start One Million Gardens

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On the day he almost died, Kimbal Musk had food on the brain. The internet startup whiz, restaurateur, and younger brother of Tesla’s Elon had just arrived in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, from a 2010 TED conference where chef Jamie Oliver had spoken about the empowerment that could come from healthy eating. This was something Musk thought about a lot — food’s untapped potential, how he might be a disruptor in the culinary space — but beyond expanding his farm-to-table ethos along with his restaurant empire, Musk hadn’t yet cracked the code. Then he went sailing down a snowy slope on an inner tube going 35 miles an hour and flipped over, snapping his neck. The left side of his body was paralyzed. Doctors told the father of three that he was lucky: Surgery might bring movement back.

“I remember telling myself, ‘It’s all going to be fine,’ and then realizing that tears were streaming down the side of my face,” he says. “I was like, ‘Yeah, OK. I don’t really know what’s going on. I’m just going to, you know, let things go.’”

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Musk, 48, eventually made a full recovery, but it involved spending two months on his back, which gave him plenty of time to think about the intersections of food, tech, and philanthropy. Since then, he has launched an initiative to put “learning gardens” in public schools across America (now at 632 schools and counting); courted Generation Z into the farming profession by converting shipping containers into high-tech, data-driven, year-round farms; spoken out vociferously against unethical farming practices and vociferously for the beauty and community of slow food; and this year, on the first day of spring, is kicking off a new campaign with Modern Farmer’s Frank Giustra to create one million at-home gardens in the coming year.

Aimed at reaching low-income families, the Million Gardens Movement was inspired by the pandemic, as both a desire to feel more connected to nature and food insecurity have been at the forefront of so many people’s lives. “We were getting a lot of inquiries about gardening from people that had never gardened before,” says Giustra. “People were looking to garden for a bunch of reasons: to supplement their budget, because there was a lot of financial hardship, to help grow food for other people, or just to cure the boredom that came with the lockdown. To keep people sane, literally keep people sane, they turned to gardening.”

The program offers free garden kits that can be grown indoors or outdoors, and will be distributed through schools that Musk’s non-profit, Big Green, has already partnered with. It also offers free curriculum on how to get the garden growing and fresh seeds and materials for the changing growing seasons. “I grew up in the projects when I was young, in what we now call food deserts,” says EVE, one of the many celebrities who have teamed up with the organization to encourage people to pick up a free garden or to donate one. “What I love about this is that it’s not intimidating. Anyone can do this, no matter where you come from, no matter where you live. We are all able to grow something.”

Rolling Stone recently talked with Musk about the Million Gardens Movement, why shipping containers can grow the most perfect basil, and how he is channeling his family’s trademark disruptor drive to change America’s relationship with food.

How did you first get interested in food and then how did that grow into an interest in agricultural innovation?
I’ve always loved food. I started cooking for my family when I was 12, maybe even 11.

What was the first meal you made? Do you remember?
It’s actually funny. My mother is a wonderful person, great dietitian, but because she’s a dietitian, the food we ate was brown bread and yogurt or bean soup. I mean, as a kid, it drove me crazy. So I asked my mom, “If I could cook, could we get something else?” And so I went to the butcher, and I asked them, “How do you roast a chicken?” And he said, “Put it in a really hot oven for one hour.” And I was like, “Oh, how hot is hot?” He was like, “Make it as hot as your oven goes for one hour, and if it starts to burn, then just take it out.” And he gave me the chicken, and that was it. I’ve kept that recipe forever. 450, 500 degrees, one hour. That’s a great straight-up recipe.

And then my mother insisted on a vegetable, so I decided to do French fries, which was my funny way of convincing her that I’m doing a vegetable.

It is a vegetable.
I totally screwed up the French fries. I didn’t heat up the oil ahead of time, and if you don’t do that, the potatoes actually soak in the oil so you’re eating basically a sponge of oil. I made everyone throw up. But the roast chicken was delicious. Everyone loved that. And so I was encouraged to cook more. I cooked for my friends in university. I didn’t have any money, so I figured out how to cook for 40 cents a person. It was a Kraft dinner with weiner sausages. And if someone chipped in an extra dollar, I’d get actually real cheese instead of the powdered cheese.

Anyway, I studied business, and then went down to California to start a company with my brother building maps and door-to-door directions for the internet.

I read that you and your brother were sleeping in your office and showering at the YMCA and that sort of startup lifestyle made you appreciate food.
Yeah, that’s totally right. We only had enough money for rent for either an office or an apartment, so we rented an office. I had a little minibar fridge and put one of those portable cooktops above it, and that was our kitchen. But we also ate at Jack in the Box all the time because it was the only place that was open late. Ugh, 25 years later, I can still remember the items on that menu. It was just really, really not great — a huge inspiration to go focus on real food after that.

And I just did not like the lack of social connection. It’s a work-hard-go-to-sleep-and-work-hard-again culture with not much socializing in the way that I enjoy, which is eating food, eating together over a meal, talking about ideas. I kind of was suffocating a little bit.

It’s a Soylent culture.
Yeah, exactly. They actually want food to be a pill. So I kind of needed to leave. We ended up selling [our company] for a gazillion dollars when I was 27, and I had this sort of opportunity to do whatever I wanted. So I went to New York to enroll at the French Culinary Institute.

Was culinary school as brutal as people make it out to be?
Absolutely brutal. It was Full Metal Jacket, but cooking. They just totally break you down. They make sure you don’t have any faith in your own abilities — within a few months, you’re like, “I am a completely useless fool” — and then after that they start building you up with the skills they want you to have. It was very, very hard on the ego. I managed to graduate, but I would say 70 percent of the people that start don’t finish — and you pay up front.

I actually graduated just a few weeks before 9/11 and woke up to the sounds of the plane hitting the building. That’s how close we were. Fourteen days later, I started volunteering to feed the firefighters. We would do 16-hour days, every day — there was never a reason not to work because the alternative is you sit at home during the nightmare after 9/11, where no one was on the streets or anything. I started peeling potatoes and eventually got to the point where I would drive the food down to Ground Zero. The firefighters would come in completely gray in their face and gray in their eyes, covered in dust. And then they’d start eating, and you’d see the color come back in their face, the light in their eyes.

And you worked as a line cook after that?
Yeah, for Hugo Matheson, at his restaurant. He was the chef of a popular restaurant in Boulder, and I just wanted to learn. I was a line cook for $10 an hour for probably 18 months. And loved it. You know, it’s a submarine culture. And you get in there and everything you do in the moment is measured in the moment. It’s very much the opposite of [building] software.

You and Hugo eventually started a restaurant [The Kitchen] that practiced the farm-to-table thing before it was even really a term. Why was it so important to you to have local suppliers and organic methods? At that point, was it mainly about flavor or was there a bigger ethic behind it?
For sure flavor was the driver. But I think that the thing that I resonated with more was the sense of this concept of community through food. You know, when I was feeding the firefighters, it was all about community. The fishermen would come and give us their fish, so we got the best fish you can imagine. The cooks were all volunteers. We were going through this really tough time. So for me, the community through food was what I loved about it.

[At The Kitchen], we literally had a basic rule to farmers saying we’ll buy whatever you grow. We said that if you can deliver by 4 p.m., then we will get it on the menu that evening.

Oh, wow.
We would get fiddlehead ferns at 4 p.m. and be trying to think, “OK, what can we do with this?” If you turn the food around that quickly, it really does show up in the flavor.

Food that had potentially been in the ground that morning.
Not potentially. Every day was working with the harvest of that day. We had 43 different farmers coming to the back door. It was awesome.

Let’s move ahead to the part of the story, after your accident, when you’re like, “All right, I’ve gotten this new lease on life and now what am I going to do with it?” Obviously within the food space, there are a lot of choices you could have made. So how did you decide where to go from there?
So when I came out of that hospital, I resigned as CEO of my software company. I told my wife I wanted a divorce. The spiritual message I got was: Work with a way to connect kids to real food, to get kids to understand what real food is. And real food for me is food that you trust to nourish the body, trust to nourish the farmer, trust to nourish the planet. It’s very simple. Processed food would be the opposite of that. There’s no nourishment there. The farmer gets hosed and it’s terrible for the planet. So I [looked into] farm-oriented work and cooking-skills training. Turned out giving kids knives isn’t a good idea.

What? [laughter]
Yeah. Exactly. But the thing that came back to me was the value of a school garden. I actually was pretty frustrated with school gardens. I had been a philanthropic supporter of them for a few years and found them to be expensive, hard to maintain — a passionate parent would put it in and then their kid would graduate, and it would become this mess in the corner of the school yard. So we [created] learning gardens. They’ve got a beautiful Fibonacci sequence layout. They’re made in a factory, but they have a natural look and feel. These are totally food-safe and can go on any school ground. They’re [wheelchair] accessible, easy to teach in, and built into the irrigation system of the school. We go in and we do 100 of them at a time. Pre-COVID we got to almost 700 schools in Denver, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Memphis, L.A.

How did you decide which cities to go into?
I believe this is useful anywhere, but what I found was low-income communities were the areas where you really needed it. Private schools or wealthier schools, they all have gardens — there’s not a private school out there that doesn’t embrace having a school garden. It’s actually the low-income schools that don’t have it. And that is also, coincidentally or not, where the obesity is. And so what I wanted to do is take what existed in private schools and put it into low-income schools and to do it in a way where it would be the most beautiful thing in the school. So instead of that sort of eyesore that was in the backyard, we said, “These have to be right next to the classroom, right next to the playground. You’re not allowed to build a fence around it. And if you don’t want to do that, great, we’ll just find another school. But these are the rules for learning garden.” And because we were doing 100 at a time, the districts would work with us, including maintenance and installation and curriculum and teacher training. Pre-COVID we were teaching almost 350,000 kids every school day.

And are there measurable effects?
Absolutely. Studies show that fifth grade in particular is the most effective grade. If you teach science in fifth grade to a kid, the exact same lesson in the garden versus in the classroom, you will get a 15-point increase on a 100-point score on their test scores.

And then if you teach kids 90 minutes a week in school, which is not hard to do because it’s beautiful and fun to be outside, you’ll double their intake of fruits and vegetables. Now they’re not eating a lot of fruits and vegetables, so the base is low, but you’re still doubling. The way I like to look at it is you’re really not trying to make them eat vegetables all the time — that’s too hard — you just try to change the course of their life by a few degrees; if you can do it by third, fourth, fifth grade, they’re going to be a different adult when they grow up. We’re not here to claim that what we do changes everything. We believe that the cafeteria needs to improve, that we need grocery stores to exist in these food deserts. There are many legs of the stool, but the school garden movement is a critical leg.

Are there any other technological innovations in this space that are really giving you hope?
I think there’s a lot of cool things going on around carbon capture with regenerative farming, because if you do farming correctly, you’ve become a wonderful carbon sink. And there needs to be an economy around it. So what is the value of a carbon credit? They’ve got value for that in Europe, but they haven’t valued it in America. So I think there’s a lot of government policy that needs to work there. But it’s a fascinating area to look at.

It’s interesting, the concept of bringing innovation to agriculture, which is—
So old school! Yeah, it’s fun. I do get frustrated that it doesn’t move fast enough. Then I’m reminded of how big this is and I’ve got my whole life to work on it. So I’m learning to embrace going a little slower. If you are in the software world, it’s more “move fast and break things,” and I think with food, it’s something in between.

Yeah, you don’t want to break the food chain.
No, people need to eat. Exactly.

And I know you’ve been advocating, too, for policies that help farmers shift to organic methods.
Yeah, I’ve been a supporter of that, but I really have pushed my energy now to work with young farmers of any kind. I’m not against organic at all. I love organic. But I’ve kind of said, “You know, we just need young farmers.” Real food doesn’t require it to be organic. If it’s a zucchini that happens to be grown conventionally, I’m still in favor of that.

It’s still a zucchini.
Right. That being said, organic is better. Farmers make more money on it. But it’s really about young farmers getting them into the business.

If you don’t mind, let me take one minute to just talk about [another initiative called] Square Roots. So there was a sort of a turning point in indoor farming technology around 2014, where you could really do quality food. Indoor farming’s been around forever, but the quality was really terrible. It would taste like water. No real flavor. But the technology of lighting really changed in 2014, and so by 2016 we said, “You know, there is a way here.” And what got me going was I really wanted to create this generation of young farmers. I love technology and I love food. And I think that if we bring the two together, we will get young people interested in farming again. And so we started out Square Roots as really a training entity.

And with Square Roots, you’re growing food in a shipping containers? There’s no soil?
Yeah, we refine the nutrients [through the water]. We’ve gotten very, very thoughtful about what the nutrients are so that we can re-create as best we can the soil that they would get normally. The shipping containers, what’s beautiful about them is the fact that we can totally control the climate. For example, we have found that Genoa in Italy is where the best basil in the world is grown. It’s four weeks in June that are the best, and actually 1997 was the best June. And so we re-create the climate of 1997 Genoa, Italy, in each of those containers to create the tastiest basil you can possibly imagine. Using data, we can monitor the growth and how they work. And every square meter of the air in there is exactly the same. That’s why containers are so valuable. Plants factories have to grow basil or cilantro or whatever all in the same climate. We get to grow arugula, basil, parsley, cilantro or whatever each in their own climate. For example, we’ve discovered that mint grows best in the Yucatan Peninsula — super human, grows like a weed, delicious. And we re-create that climate.

And the shipping containers, the idea for that was, “Let’s use things that we can recycle”?
Well, they are recycled. But no, it wasn’t that. It was actually climate control. They’re actually like refrigerators. We can drop that temperature in there to 40 degrees Fahrenheit for a particular growth cycle. If we have any pests, we don’t use pesticides, we have something called Mojave mode where we turn it into the Mojave Desert for four days. We bring the temperature up to 120 degrees, drop the humidity down to four percent and nothing can survive. That’s how we remove pests. No one else can do that unless you use these kind of containers. So it’s really a technology solution.

You’ve referred to food as being the new Internet. Do you still feel that way?
Oh, my god. Absolutely. It’s showing itself. Food is different to social media and so forth. It takes a long time to build up supply chains, get consistent growing. It’s not as fast moving, but it is a much bigger business. Software is a $400 billion business. Food is an $18 trillion business. So the opportunity is much, much bigger in food than it is in software.

What are the top two or three things that really bother you about the industrial food system right now?
The processing of food. For some reason back in the ’70s, America just started to idolize processed food. And so what you have is a high-calorie hamburger, for example, that is nutritionally irrelevant. In other words, people were just not thinking about nutrition. And they used laboratories to adjust the flavor, chemicals to adjust the flavor, artificial ingredients. The result was a very high-calorie, highly processed kind of a Frankenstein burger that did please the pallet, but it made you feel awful afterwards.

The other one that is absolutely ludicrous is ethanol. Forty percent of our corn fields are growing ethanol. That’s 25 million acres of land that could be used to grow real food. People keep feeding us bullshit that we need to try and feed the world. We have so much food that we are turning 40 percent of it into ethanol. It takes a gallon of oil to make a gallon of ethanol. So it’s just a total boondoggle for the corn farmers and it’s terrible for the environment. In fact, it’s hilarious: It’s the only thing that both the oil industry and the environmentalists hate. Can you imagine there’s something that those two can agree on? And it’s ethanol.

Why the hell are we doing it?
It’s a subsidy for farmers. We do it because old people vote, and they control the farms, and they would all be devastated right now if the true demand of corn is what they had to deal with. And until a politician has the courage to make those hard decisions, we’re going to be stuck growing ethanol. Now, the good thing is we are all switching to electric cars, so ethanol is going to go away anyway. But for a while, the next five to 10 years, ethanol is going to be a part of what we do.

Let’s talk about the Million Gardens Movement. How did you get the idea that you wanted to do it?
Frank [Giustra] and his team pitched us on joining forces and doing the Million Gardens Movement. And we loved it. We thought it was a great idea. Because of Covid, we had been forced to pivot our model from the learning gardens because we couldn’t really teach people in the gardens anymore. And so we had done this trial of what we call little green gardens, which are round, beautiful sort of beige sacks, and you can come in and pick these up from a local school in your community. You can grow them on a windowsill as long as there’s some light. You can grow them indoors, which enables any city to be able to use them.

Say you get to a million gardens, are there any projections on what the environmental impact of that might be?
What we would be doing with these little green gardens is inspiring people to garden and empowering them to garden. The average garden generates about $600 to $700 worth of food a year. So it provides actual food to your family. You’re having a lower carbon footprint because you’re not shipping food around. It’s great for mental health. Think about Covid and how crazy we all are. This gets you out there. It connects you to your kids. Gardening is such a beautiful thing to do for yourself, for the community, for the environment.

It’s easy to think about what has been lost during this time, but I do like this idea of using COVID as an opportunity for change.
It’s obviously one of the worst things we’ve gone through as a society, but if we do this correctly, if we take this opportunity well, it could be one of the best things that’s happened to society — in a few years, we’ll look back and say, “OK, this was a good way to restart and focus more on climate change, focus more on gardening with your family, being connected to each other.” I think it has a lot of potential, as long as we take that potential and we leverage it. So the Million Gardens Movement is a part of that.

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