Finally! A story I've been eager to tell since I attended the Family Farm conference last month, about a two-acre farm in urban Milwaukee. Pictured above, tilapia at Growing Power. (I'm making the thumbnails smaller than usual so I can get in more photographs.)
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It's miraculous, really: fish fertilize the water. The water feeds the plants, The plants filter the water. The fish swim in the water. You can eat the fish (tilapia, yum), you can eat the plants. You can't eat the worms, who are also part of this equation, but they've got work to do. It is the innovative combination of composting, aquaponics/hydroponics, and vermiculture that has brought national attention to a very special spot in urban Milwaukee.
I had met farmer Will Allen at the Growing Power booth at the Family Farm Expo in Chicago a little less than a month ago. It was impossible to miss him: at six feet and seven inches, he towered over everyone in the room. One solid handshake from him, with a "come and visit us—it will change your life" later, and I found myself making plans to visit the Growing Power center in Milwaukee, where I coincidentally would be spending Saturday night before flying home late on Sunday.
The Growing Power booth was one of the most attractive at the conference. The variety of greens alone—fresh and vibrant—attracted people. Golden beets, huge cloves of garlic, golden potatoes, chives, and all manner of herbs and salad greens spilled abundantly from baskets and boxes. Beyond that, the constant smiles of the young women working in the booth were a testimony to the joy one can find in the simple (but complex) act of feeding people. Those smiles said, "This is good work."
So we invited ourselves, Mary Catherine and I, out to see what was so unusual at the Growing Power center. I was aware that Will Allen would be teaching courses: once a month, several dozen people come to spend a weekend at Growing Power to learn how to maximize the output and create an efficient and sustainable ecosystem that can feed 2000 people on two acres. I issued my usual, "I promise not to get in anyone's hair" promise, and we arrived the next afternoon.
We were greeted by Amy Schuster, our tour guide for the next hour or so, whom I'd met at the Expo. We entered a greenhouse (one of nine on the two-acre property), and passed through a room filled with people. It was the lunch break in the workshop for 65 people who'd come from all around the country to absorb everything they could from Growing Power's charismatic founder. We then entered a long room holding channels of water, piles of compost, potting tables, shelves with dark soil flecked with organic amendments, and the usual assortment of hoses, watering cans, buckets, and tools. What made this room anything but a standard greenhouse lay in the aquariums, where the red-eyed tilapia swam in groups. Really: think of it.
Don't ask me to explain it, but somehow, the water they swim in is channeled towards the myriad pots containing the vegetables growing there, and then other plants farther down the line filter the water, which goes back into the system, pure enough for the fish to swim in it. If I were more mechanically minded than I am, it would seem less like a Rube Goldberg invention than my brain presently conceives it. But looking at the components individually—hmmm, is that a dryer perched up on that shelf?—I was clearly in the presence of a creation that was the product of at least one very strong will. Or is that a strong Will?
A little about Will Allen (gleaned from GrowingPower.org and from this story in the Milwaukee Shepherd Press):
Allen's family lived on a 12-acre farm in Rockville, Maryland, where his father, a former sharecropper from South Carolina, had relocated the family. The second youngest of six boys and a girl, Will absorbed the business of farming as well as the ethics of hard work, waking early, and even selling vegetables door-to-door at age six. Then his height propelled him to become the first black basketball player at the University of Miami in 1967. Turning pro, he went to Europe with the now-defunct American Basketball Association, married, and had three children with his wife, Cynthia. In Belgium, he visited small farms, and himself put in a garden and started raising chickens. When the youngest child started speaking Flemish, the Allens decided it was time to return to the States.
Cynthia's family owned a farm in Oak Creek, a suburban city near Milwaukee. While working in corporate marketing jobs that included Proctor & Gamble, Will continued to farm. He snapped up the two-acre parcel that is now the Growing Power center, merely because it was still zoned for agriculture in an increasingly industrial city, and because he needed somewhere to sell what the Oak Creek farm was producing. It was being in the city and seeing urban blight and the poor health resulting from poverty and crowded living conditions that turned Allen's attention to new farming techniques. These techniques synthesized into the incredibly productive system that allows Growing Power the potential to earn a $5/square foot yield, as opposed to a $1/square foot yield that is the conventional farmer's average.
As his "farm" developed, so did the realization that he could help others create communities that were centered on healthy, affordable food. And so the farmer became the teacher, the coach, the architect for a new vision that has swept literally thousands of people up in the spirit of "We can do this." Growing Power is an organization with many offshoots and partners: from youth education to partnering farms who use Growing Power to distribute their produce, in the aptly named Rainbow Farmers Cooperative. (The "rainbow" includes Hmong, African-American, and white farmers in the Milwaukee area.) Collectively, they were able to make inroads in local supermarkets, delivering high quality produce at competitive prices: clearly it was a case of "swim together or sink alone." Another strand in the braids of community that run through the projects of Growing Power.
Growing Power has helped launch more than 25 urban gardens, in places where food is not necessarily safe, healthy, or affordable.
Back to the tour. One of the larger greenhouses had that farmy smell: Amy glanced at my shoes to see if I would be okay to traverse the, um, grounds. And I mean "grounds" literally, in this case: among all the things that go into the compost and vermiculture are coffee grinds, as well as leftovers from breweries, food thrown out from Milwaukee restaurants, and maybe the kitchen sink, too. The greenhouse verged on stinky, but I mean that in a nice way. It was a healthy kind of stinky, and I had seen the results of the dirt in the beautiful produce heaped on the display table at the farm expo.
Another peek into a greenhouse where winter greens grew elicited this from Amy: "Even on the coldest winter mornings, the compost heats this room enough so that we can grow year-round." (In Wisconsin, folks, a state I resided from August 8 - September 30, 1974: I decided to move back to finish high school in Georgia when the temperature on the autumnal equinox had plummeted to 21 degrees.)
I was still trying to assimilate all this information when we went out back and saw, OH! Goats and chickens and ducks and the biggest turkey I've ever seen in my life. That turkey. The goats were even better: a couple were the prettiest goats I'd ever seen. Here, however, I confess to serious guilt. Mary Catherine and I had eaten at Maharaja, a buffet lunch of Indian food, and I still had goat on my breath. I was nervous about talking to these beautiful creatures, wondering if they would know. (They didn't seem to be bothered, though.)
Back inside, Will let me photograph him, and then I got a shot of Amy with him. These were very gracious people to let us interrupt their day, and hopefully my little blog will help spread the very good word about their very good work.
You can hire Will as a consultant, or you can attend their monthly workshops. What he promised was true: it changed my life to see what can come out of water and earth and good Will.
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And another little story I've been meaning to tell. A couple of weeks ago at the downtown Santa Cruz farmers market, I ran into Ronald Donkervoort, who had a tale to tell. It seems that a former girlfriend (when he was nineteen!) had been Googling, hoping to find a windmill for her mother in Holland, where Ronald is from. Because of the power of blogging software (the enormously large community here at Typepad), my blog often turns up at the very top of the strangest requests. And because Ronald's is Windmill Farms, he popped up in the search results. His old girlfriend found him after many decades, and contacted him. He and Cate were planning their two-month vacation to Holland to see his parents, and the girlfriend set him up with a car while he was there. She's coming to visit Ronald and Cate this summer. He told me, "And all this because of the nice thing you did to put me on the internet. I've never seen it, though: I don't even have electricity. But it was a nice thing you did." A sweet reunion, and new friendships, from a blog.
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Finally a quick note to say that I thought yesterday's post about Monsanto seeing the light was the most transparent April Fool's joke conceivable, but apparently my friends think my little blog could actually make that kind of difference in the world. I don't know whether to be flattered at such loyalty or embarrassed (for actually fooling anyone). As one person told me, "My brother-in-law works at Monsanto. You do not discuss sustainable farming around him, even though he grew up on a farm." (Now I'm wondering how long it will be before Monsanto threatens to sue me.)
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THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: "What it lies in our power to do, it lies in our power not to do."
Thanks for visiting. I promise: no more April Fool's jokes.