People make all sorts of meccas. Young musicians travel to hear the vibrations of a maestro’s violin strings in person. Aspiring actors crane their necks from nosebleed seats to feel the energy and ambition of Broadway. Nature photographers check the Grand Canyon and Yosemite off their lists dutifully.
Where do urban farmers go to see the work of their heroes?
You’re looking at it!
It might not look like much at first, but the mural, the solar panels, and the boxes of veggies mark the entrance to a world of inspiration for growers and community leaders from all over the world. This is the Growing Power Community Center, and back in the fall, the Urban Farmer and I made our pilgrimage there as part of our Westward Wanderings (hence the Christmas trees).
Farm fresh produce for sale at Growing Power.
The story of Growing Power is the story of Will Allen (who we missed by one day unfortunately). Farmer, founder and CEO of Growing Power Inc., Will Allen is recognized as an urban agriculture trailblazer throughout the world, and the store wall of press clippings and awards attest to his well deserved acclaim.
Born a sharecropper’s son, Will Allen grew up farming in Maryland. Despite his father’s rule that sports were forbidden until chores were completed, he excelled in basketball, enough to become the first African-American scholarship athlete at the University of Miami. He eventually became the basketball team captain, and later generations of Miami players have yet to break many of his records.
Allen graduated with a degree in education, but his athleticism steered him toward the NBA and the American Basketball Association. After a year in the ABA, he entered the European League and played for Belgium. However, his farming roots and his education degree would later serve him perhaps more than he ever imagined.
While living in Belgium, Allen observed the intensive methods used on small plots by local farmers, and he began applying those methods in a garden where he grew food for his family and teammates. After his basketball career, he returned to the United States and joined the corporate world, but he quickly concluded dirt was more appealing than an office life.
Will Allen built a true field of dreams- an urban field of dreams, and “they” came!
Beneath the nasturtium are some 10,000 fish growing in one of Growing Power’s four-foot-deep, 10,000-gallon aquaponics tanks. Waste from the fish feeds greens and tomatoes. The plants purify the water for the fish. The fish eventually go to market.
Allen took over the operations at his wife’s family farm in Wisconsin. Seeking a place to sell the surplus in the city, he discovered a vacant garden center in nearby Milwaukee. In a serendipitous turn of events, he had stumbled upon the last tract in the city of Milwaukee still zoned for agriculture. Allen realized he could not only sell food from his own farm in Oak Creek, but he could grow food on the urban site, in a neighborhood where there was little fresh food to be found.
Inadvertently, Will Allen built a true field of dreams- an urban field of dreams, and “they” came! As he set up his operation, in the last agricultural zone, neighborhood children took an interest. These were children who lived in the largest, low-income public housing project in Milwaukee, and they began to ask him for advice to grow their own vegetables. (Melt my heart!)
The educator in Will Allen emerged, as did an Agricultural Hero of mythical proportions. Step aside Spiderman. Step aside Batman. Little kids should play with figurines of Will Allen. Will Allen the sharecropper’s son and the pro basketball player became Will Allen, the founder of Growing Power, Inc.
That lot in Milwaukee grew to be a positive influence on the neighborhood, on the city and eventually the world! Those impromptu gatherings of neighborhood children became the Youth Corps, a program that continues today.
Today, Growing Power, Inc is “a national nonprofit organization and land trust supporting people from diverse backgrounds, and the environments in which they live, by helping to provide equal access to healthy, high-quality, safe and affordable food for people in all communities. Growing Power implements this mission by providing hands-on training, on-the-ground demonstration, outreach and technical assistance through the development of Community Food Systems that help people grow, process, market and distribute food in a sustainable manner.”
The mission of Growing Power is “to grow food, to grow minds, and to grow community.”
The aquaponics system at Growing Power, Milwaukee, WI.
Furthermore, Will Allen has been an innovator in methods of composting, vermicomposting (using worms to refine and fertilize compost) and aquaponics (growing fish and food plants in a closed system). These and other intensive practices result in remarkable yields of food, even in a very small area, even in winter! These were a few of the reasons we wanted to see Growing Power in person.
“Everybody should touch the soil. It really changes how you feel about everything in your life. It’s therapeutic.” -Will Allen
Growing Power’s projects fall into three essential areas:
Projects and Growing Methods – Growing Power demonstrates its easy to replicate growing methods through on-site workshopsand hands-on demonstrations. Growing Power has farms in Milwaukee, Madison, and Merton, Wisconsin, and in Chicago, Illinois. Growing Power has also established satellite-training sites in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, and Mississippi.
Education and Technical Assistance – Growing Power educates folks through local, national, and international outreach for farmers and communities. They run multiple youth programs, have an active volunteer base, and actively work on policy initiatives regarding agriculture.
Food Production and Distribution – Food production occurs in the organization’s demonstration greenhouses, rural farm site in Merton, and urban farms in Milwaukee and Chicago. They also distribute produce, grass-based meats, and value-added products through the activities of over 300 small family farmers in the Rainbow Farmers Cooperative, and the organization’s year-round food security program the Farm-to-City Market Basket Program. They also sell to numerous restaurants and small grocery stores in Chicago, Madison, and Milwaukee.
In addition to tropical plants in November and the MOUNDS of compost a mere mile away from a Starbucks, what inspired me the most was Growing Power’s affiliation with the Kohl’s headquarters. The non-profit works with the company to plant their green spaces and donate food to those in need. Imagine if every major company had such a green, community-building component!
If people can grow safe, healthy, affordable food, if they have access to land and clean water, this is transformative on every level in a community. I believe we cannot have healthy communities without a healthy food system.” -Will Allen
A truck for a scale figure to show the enormity of Growing Power’s compost impact.
Small pumpkins as scale figures to show the vast mound of compost at Growing Power in Milwaukee, WI.
It was a tad cold, so the chickens were in their hoop house, but normally, they roam the animal wing of the urban farm. If you see this many chickens in person, you quickly learn why “pecking order” is a phrase.
If you’ve got it, flaunt it. You go little goat!
When you “take something with a grain of salt,” you listen with skepticism. With “A Grain of Good,” I am asking you to do the opposite- to receive a message with optimism and inspiration. In this series, I interview and document the work of community leaders who use food as a vehicle for positive change. Growing Power has been and continues to be an enormous source of inspiration. We were grateful to have seen it up close, and hopefully one day, I’ll see the Big Guy himself! In the meantime, I know The Urban Farmer’s head is still processing and applying some of the lessons we saw firsthand.
I hope you found a nugget or two of inspiration! Thanks for reading!
p.s: Do you know someone who is A Grain of Good? Leave a comment, or email me your nominations firstname.lastname@example.org ! The world needs more inspiration, and the do-gooders need more encouragement!