Sunday, June 19, 2011

Growing Power, an Inspiring Farm in Milwaukee, WI

Will Allen
Former pro basketball player Will Allen has a vision – helping to provide equal access to healthy, high-quality, safe and affordable food for people in all communities.  He’s providing a model to revise our whole food system. 

In today’s big industrial food system, many of our vegetables are grown on a few hundred square miles of farmland in California, picked before it’s ripe, shipped for days using precious fossil fuel, then stored in warehouses and sent to supermarkets, where the vegetables can sit for many more days.  This process robs vegetables of nutrients and taste. 

Growing Power Community Food Center, Milwaukee, WI
By contrast, Will Allen envisions a system where food is grown locally, even in the winter, harvested at its peak, used within 1-2 days of being harvested, and available at a fair price for everyone, even those living in grocery store deserts in the inner city.  How does he hope to bring that vision to fruition?  To find out, we visited and spent a day volunteering at the Growing Power Community Food Center, the urban farm started by Will Allen on two acres in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Milwaukee. 

We were very impressed by just how cleverly the Community Food Center grows large amounts of produce in very little space.  In 6 greenhouses and 10 “hoop houses” (metal hoops with polyethylene stretched over them), this farm grows sprouts (we tasted 4” high pea sprouts) and baby greens in every available spot.  Flats of soil are “overseeded” and when the mass of leaves reaches 4-6” high, in 12-14 days, workers “shave” them, wash the harvested greens twice, spin them, and package them.   Other vegetables we saw in flats included tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, peppers, kale, cabbage, broccoli, and various herbs, some of which were destined for sale or for use in other garden projects around the city.
Jacqueline explains aquaponics

Also in the greenhouses are several aquaponics systems.  Tilapia and yellow perch grow in 80 foot-long fish runs on the lowest level.  The water is pumped up into two tiers of slightly tilted gravel beds.  As the water flows through these upper beds, the nitrites from the fish waste are converted to nitrates by bacteria on the rocks, and then plants use the nitrates as fertilizer.  Some levels contain pots of various food plants sitting in the gravel beds, and other levels contain watercress growing directly in the gravel.  The purified water flows back into the fish runs, thus making a closed loop system.  The fish are fed three times/day and reach marketable size in 9-15 months (depending on the type of fish).  Fish are sold live to restaurants and the public.  And the tomatoes we helped pot and place on the top tier will provide tomatoes for area residents well into the winter.

Kids learning how worms make soil
Growing Power creates its own rich soil.  First, compost is created by mixing farm plant waste, manure, food scraps from grocery stores and food preparers, wood chips from the city, and beer mash from a local brewery, and allowing it to mature for about a year.  Second, the compost is put in bins with red wriggler worms for 4 months.  And finally, the worm castings are harvested and mixed with coconut husk fibers to improve the soil’s wicking properties. 

The compost (before the worms get it) gets so hot (up to 180 degrees) that Growing Power piles it along the outside of the hoop houses in the winter to heat them.  This allows them to grow produce year-round with little if any supplemental heat. 

The Growing Power Community Food Center also raises animals.  There are beehives for pollination, honey, and teaching.  There are turkeys, ducks and chickens for eggs, and goats to teach milking and cheese making. 

Some of Growing Power's beehives
Everything on the farm is used and reused.  In addition to composting all organic waste, they use some of the compost to make compost tea for fertilizing their plants.  They use sunlight for growing, and they also have solar electric and solar hot water panels to provide some of their energy needs.  They collect rainwater for the fish runs and watering.  They use pots and flats until they fall apart, and even the slugs we cleaned out of the slug traps were fed to the chickens. 

The produce that the farm grows is supplied to local residents in many ways – sold in their small store individually or through “market baskets” that contain enough produce for a family of 4 for a week, sold on contracts to local schools and restaurants, and donated to the local food bank. 

The Community Food Center also provides training and a wide variety of jobs for people in the area.  Interns come from all over the US to work for the summer.  School children and adults learn about growing food and Growing Power methods through hands-on experiences and weekend workshops.

Growing Power is much more than the Community Food Center farm and national headquarters that we saw in Milwaukee.  There are many other sites that are part of, or supported by, Growing Power, including several other urban sites in the Chicago area and several other growing spaces from small demonstration gardens to more spacious farm plots.

Altogether, Growing Power reported that in 2010 they grew enough food to feed 12,000 people, including more than $500,000 worth of crops and 100,000 fish.  They hosted over 15,000 visitors and 3,500 volunteers, and they trained 1000 beginning farmers and over 1000 youths.

Will Allen and Growing Power challenge our current assumptions about how and where to grow the food we eat.  We found the approach to be ecologically responsible, surprisingly effective for northern climates, and potentially a route to making more nutritious food available to underserved areas.

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