To grow food, to grow minds and to grow community.
March 29, 2010
My sister and I walked into the 20 foot by 10 foot store just as the tour was beginning. We admired the blue sweatshirt “The good food movement is now a revolution” while we squeezed to the register to sign up. Back out the store door and around the corner, on the way to the huge heaps of steaming compost we passed Will Allen, the formidable founder of the 1.5 acre urban farm that is Growing Power.
Distributing food to over 40 restaurants, participating in 6 farmers markets and offering Market Baskets in Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago, Growing Power is dedicated to providing nutrient-dense, whole foods to urbanites. Kids at Milwaukee public schools eat sunflower sprouts like fruit snacks. In addition to their greenhouse/hoop house operation on Silver Spring Drive, Growing Power maintains a 40 acre rural farm and a community garden at the Maple Tree School in Milwaukee. The vision started with the idea that everyone should to have access produce in their neighborhood. Before Growing Power was formed in 1993, Will Allen was selling rural farm grown vegetables in the city out of a couple greenhouses. Those greenhouses were soon transformed into a full-grown sustainable farm.
We saw laying chickens, some leisurely goats, a very large turkey, greens and sprouts of all kinds, and human attempts to master the stream ecosystem. Aquaponics= fish below, plants above. Water from the fish tank is pumped up where it is filtered and cleaned by the plants and drips back down for the fish to enjoy. The genius in mimicking natural processes was not lost on me, its one of those principles “beyond organic” folks tend to follow. Ecosystem relationships have evolved far longer than agriculture has, and they do a darn good job not only at surviving for millenia, but at maintaining fertility, preventing erosion, and supporting biodiversity.
The ecosystem upon which Growing Power is built lies within the soil. Just as Joel Salatin says he’s a grass farmer, I say the Growing Power crew are compost farmers. A huge pile, at least a story high, of vegetable scraps coated with wood chips are the first step. More of that forms an insulation layer on the outside of the hoop houses and is stored in each corner in the inside to maintain warmth during cold winter nights. Some lucky red wrigglers (worms) get it after and their castings form a rich soil (vermicompost) that can be used as fertilizer or combined with coconut husk to make a potting mix for greens. This is more complex than it seems. In a teaspoon of productive soil you can find up to 1 billion individual bacteria. To get the whole bag of worms check out Growing Power’s composting workshops.
I asked our guide why he thought Growing Power was such a success. He didn’t hesitate to say because of the connections Will Allen forges, with the restaurants and food processors that give their food wastes back to Growing Power (and buy food from them as well), with people within the school system, with the company that donated greenhouse materials, with workers, volunteers and even tour goers like my sister and me. It’s about cultivating relationships while cultivating plants. We are in great need of food systems built upon relationships: honesty, transparency and participation. Thanks Growing Power, for leading the way.