Street Farming : Urban Ag. Milwaukee, USA

Elizabeth Royte wrote an an excellent profile of Will Allen, genius urban gardner and food activits in the New York Times a few days ago. It's a great read, rich with Allen's charisma. By the time you're done reading, you'll be looking for a spot to plant some tomatoes too.

Cultivating two acres of land in working class Milwaukee, Allen's Growing Power farm grows food for 10,000 people and creates 300,000 pounds of fertile compost each year. At the same time it helps deal with the challenges low- and middle-income communities have in accessing quality food.

Royte does a good job of discussing some of the broader economic issues around urban agriculture, and nicely distances it from the "yuppy gardening" image that it may have gained in some circles. Some excerpts below, but well worth reading in full.

--"With seeds planted at quadruple density and nearly every inch of space maximized to generate exceptional bounty, Growing Power is an agricultural Mumbai, a supercity of upward-thrusting tendrils and duct-taped infrastructure. Allen pointed to five tiers of planters brimming with salad greens. “We’re growing in 25,000 pots,” he said. Ducking his 6-foot-7 frame under one of them, he pussyfooted down a leaf-crammed aisle. “We grow a thousand trays of sprouts a week; every square foot brings in $30.” He headed toward the in-ground fish tanks stocked with tens of thousands of tilapia and perch. Pumps send the dirty fish water up into beds of watercress, which filter pollutants and trickle the cleaner water back down to the fish — a symbiotic system called aquaponics. The watercress sells for $16 a pound; the fish fetch $6 apiece."

--"If inside the greenhouse was Eden, outdoors was, as Allen explained on a drive through the neighborhood, “a food desert.” Scanning the liquor stores in the strip malls, he noted: “From the housing project, it’s more than three miles to the Pick’n Save. That’s a long way to go for groceries if you don’t have a car or can’t carry stuff. And the quality of the produce can be poor.” Fast-food joints and convenience stores selling highly processed, high-calorie foods, on the other hand, were locally abundant. “It’s a form of redlining,” Allen said. “We’ve got to change the system so everyone has safe, equitable access to healthy food.”

--''Allen was a genius at selling. [...] He could push his greens into corporate cafeterias, persuade the governor to help finance the construction of an anaerobic digester, wheedle new composting sites from urban landlords, persuade Milwaukee’s school board to buy his produce for its public schools and charm the blind into growing sprouts. (“I was cutting sprouts in the dark one night,” Allen said, “and I realized you don’t need sight to do this.”)

Last year, he took in six million pounds of spoiled food, which would otherwise rot in landfills and generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Every four months, he creates another 100,000 pounds of compost, of which he uses a quarter and sells the rest.

Uncannily, Allen makes such efforts sound simple — fun even. When he mentions that animal waste attracts soldier flies, whose larvae make terrific fish and chicken feed, a dozen people start imagining that growing grubs in buckets of manure might be a good project for them too. “Will has a way of persuading people to do things,” Robert Pierce, a farmer in Madison, Wis., told me. “There’s a spirit in how he says things; you want to be part of his community.

--No, Growing Power isn’t self-sufficient. But neither is industrial agriculture, which relies on price supports and government subsidies. Moreover, industrial farming incurs costs that are paid by society as a whole: the health costs of eating highly processed foods, for example, or water pollution. Nor can Growing Power be compared to other small farms, because it provides so many intangible social benefits to those it reaches. “It’s not operated as a farm,” said Ian Marvy, executive director of Brooklyn’s Added Value farm, which shares many of Growing Power’s core values but produces less food. “It has a social, ecological and economic bottom line.” That said, Marvy says that anyone can replicate Allen’s technical systems — the worm composting and aquaponics — for relatively little money.

Allen is also the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Genius grant. Here is the video interview that the foundation has postedalong with his profile.


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