by Allison Walsh | Contributor
At 26, Dan Weidenbenner has already established strong roots in the Greenville business community. A native of Florida, he came to Greenville to study psychology at Furman. Along the way, through fellowships and internships, he had the opportunity to work in a number of cross-cultural environments – both here and in the Lowcountry – and discovered his true passion lay in community development.
Weidenbenner’s exposure to gardening and farming through Furman’s Shi Center for Sustainability led him to the idea that community gardens could be used for much more than just growing food. And it was this idea that planted the seed for Mill Village Farms, the nonprofit he launched in 2012.
Mill Village started with one farm in the Greater Sullivan neighborhood of West Greenville. Weidenbenner worked with Long Branch Baptist Church to garner community support for building a garden and then to identify teens willing to work there. The teens are paid a small stipend, but they come away with a lot more than money. Several MVF alumni are now employed by Tupelo Honey – an early supporter – and other downtown Greenville restaurants they once grew produce for.
A second community garden serves the Mills Mill area, and MVF partners with local hobby farms to expand its growing capacity. A rooftop farm will be launched in downtown Greenville this spring, and Dan is currently fielding requests from communities seeking a garden of their own.
What inspired you to start Mill Village Farms?
I moved into the Greater Sullivan community in 2012 after graduating from Furman. I joined the neighborhood association and got to know the local pastors and started asking questions about things we could do together. What always came up was that there were few opportunities for teenagers. They had great programs for younger kids, but teens were falling off the map; if they weren’t involved in extracurriculars or athletics, then they weren’t involved in anything, and oftentimes it led to them getting in trouble.
They needed jobs, they wanted to work, so we raised funding and created kind of a social business to employ teens while training them. We do some job training, teach them about farming and gardening, and then do an entrepreneurship program in the summer.
A big thing we work on is soft skills – verbal and nonverbal communication, how to shake someone’s hand, look them in the eye, how to have small conversation, how to do an interview, how to write an application. Then we give them leadership opportunities.
I just fell in love with being part of the community, getting to know people and finding what they’re good at, and hopefully helping to further the good things already going on in these neighborhoods.
Any success stories?
One young man who started with us during our second year and went through our entrepreneurship program is a great success story. He grew up in the Sullivan community, and while working with us he wrote a business plan to start a youth program here in the neighborhood. He actually launched it in January at Long Branch Baptist Church. He’s also working full-time at Tupelo Honey, which has been a great partner to us, and at 18 is making more money than probably anyone in his family. Seeing him reinvest in the neighborhood and reinvest in the kids is humbling.
What are you working on right now that you are most excited about?
We’re working with [Greenville developer] Bob Hughes to put in a rooftop farm on one of his buildings downtown. We started dabbling in it last fall, and we’re fully launching it this spring with 50 aeroponic towers that will allow us to grow produce twice as fast in less space. Our teenagers will be able to come downtown and learn about farming, learn job skills, and just be in the hustle and bustle of downtown Greenville. It will also allow us to expand growing capacity for the restaurants we sell to.
What is the biggest topic of concern in your organization right now?
One of the things our organization works towards is improving access to fresh, healthy, local foods in communities that don’t have that access. The Good to Go Mobile Market we bring to community centers, churches and businesses is one way we’re working to solve that problem.
What keeps you awake at night?
Worrying about the dirty details of the organization and how we can keep things moving forward to reach and provide more opportunities for the teenagers that need us.
What was a game-changing moment in your career?
Working with Pastor Sean Dogan. Long Branch Baptist Church has been an integral part of this neighborhood and this city, and working together with them has played a huge role in expanding our organization to reach more teenagers and grow more food.
What do you still have to learn about your business?
Being a new organization, we’re focusing on building leadership capacity and putting together a team that’s able to take us to the next level.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I hope I’m still here investing in this community and reaching more teenagers with job opportunities and learning opportunities around entrepreneurship and agriculture. I’d also like to see an expanding Mill Village Farms growing food for the city at large.
Who do you rely on as a mentor?
There are a few people that have been incredible mentors for me. Jeff Randolph, a local real estate developer, has taught me a lot about working with local churches to build up communities. And learning from Pastor Sean Dogan has been a huge blessing. He is super passionate about not only the church and faith community, but also Greenville as a whole.
How do you motivate?
One way we motivate our teenagers is just finding the things they love and are good at already and giving them opportunities to do those things.
What has been your best business decision?
Just starting somewhere and doing something. I think that’s the biggest hurdle in entrepreneurship, having the courage to take that first step. And it’s been an amazing decision, because I never would have dreamed this organization would have grown as much as it has already.
What’s your idea of work-life balance?
For any entrepreneur it’s a struggle, and finding a balance of work and rest is a challenge most weeks. One thing I like to do is travel and be able to take a step away from the organization for a long weekend in the spring or winter.
Who outside of your professional circle has the most influence on your work?
Bob Lupton. He was worked to build up communities from within in South Atlanta, and I’ve been able to take ideas from his work and his book “Toxic Charity” and implement them here in Greenville.
Describe a time when you were sure you were about to fail.
Moving into this community and being from a totally different background, I never thought I’d be welcomed in as well as I have.
What is the difference between the future you saw for yourself five years ago and the work you are doing today?
I never was exposed to entrepreneurship, even in college, and I saw myself following a more traditional path, maybe getting my master’s and becoming a psychiatrist. Seeing some incredible entrepreneurs here in Greenville was really inspiring and really changed my direction, giving me the courage and confidence and understanding to start something.
How do you get your local and national news?
I’m a local news junkie, so I read them all. I love the Greenville Journal and UBJ. For national news I have blogs I follow more than anything. I’m really passionate about urban and city development.
Do you have a routine or anything specific you make sure to do every day?
Coffee. Never leave home without it, even if I have a coffee meeting later that day.
What do you see as the Upstate’s most underutilized asset?
Our youth. They are the ones that are going to be leading our communities in 10, 20, 30 years. Figuring out ways to empower them and solve some of the issues they face is one of the biggest challenges our community is facing.