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Growing an oasis in the city

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Volunteers at Growing Power slide on boots to slosh from greenhouse to greenhouse.

Volunteers at Growing Power slide on boots to slosh from greenhouse to greenhouse.

It’s a cold rainy day in late October. The muddy ground sinks with every step as workers pass boxes of cabbage, lettuce and other greens into the open hatch of a delivery truck.

Beyond the truck, the small farm comes alive in the rain. Other workers and volunteers spread hay in the chicken coop, feed broken pumpkins to the goats and pour woodchip paths in the open muddy spaces between the greenhouses.

Although one might expect this scene to play out in the Wisconsin countryside, this 2-acre farm sits on Milwaukee’s northern boundary. It is just blocks from the Parklawn housing development, one of the oldest projects in the nation.

This is Growing Power: a farm that produces literally tons of food each year. It distributes fresh fruits and vegetables at an affordable price and educates the community about healthy growing and eating practices.

It is the only remaining farm in Milwaukee, a city laden with “food deserts.”

Traces of green in the desert
For many living in Growing Power’s neighborhood, access to cheap and healthy food would be nearly impossible without the farm.

Will Allen, Growing Power founder and recipient of the 2008 MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship, has described this part of the city as one of Milwaukee’s food deserts, where the public’s access to food is limited to fast food chains, liquor stores and convenience shops.

Jordan Stone, Growing Power’s outreach coordinator, said people living in poverty might only be able to afford cheap fast food options. This can result in poor eating habits and future health problems.

According to Stone, a key component to reducing poverty is providing affordable healthy foods and teaching healthy eating habits. In addition to holding educational tours and workshops, the Milwaukee farm is the only place for miles that sells fresh produce, free-range eggs and homegrown honey.

Through the Market Basket Program, Stone said Growing Power sends about 400 bags of fresh fruits and vegetables to more than 20 organizations across the city every Friday. Market baskets range from $9 to $28. A $9 basket provides a week’s worth of food for two people. If purchased at a local grocery store, the same amount of food would cost $12, according to Sarah Christman, Growing Power’s facility manager.

Market baskets are even making their way onto Marquette’s campus.

Students for an Environmentally Active Campus arranges market basket orders from Marquette students on a weekly basis to send to Growing Power. SEAC President Victor Soto, a senior in the College of Engineering, said in an e-mail that market baskets allow students to trace back exactly where their food came from.

Soto said small farms like Growing Power produce safer and better tasting foods because they use organic practices like composting instead of using pesticides or harmful fertilizer.

“It tastes better. Period!” Soto said. “Some people really haven’t experienced the real taste of tomatoes because they purchased artificial tomatoes from who knows where.”

Soto said purchasing local produce is a good way to support urban farms like Growing Power.

“Without the support from a neighborhood, there really is no opportunity to grow,” Soto said.

Weeding out obstacles
Growing sustainable food in the city does not come without complications.

The first obstacle for an urban farm: space.

Although Growing Power has a 40-acre rural farm 30 minutes from Milwaukee in Hartland, Wis., growing food year-round from its 2-acre city farm requires a good imagination.

“You have to use the space that you have very efficiently,” Stone said. “You have to think vertically, both up and down.”

To maximize its use of space and maintain its crops throughout the coldest months of the year, Growing Power built 15 greenhouses. Inside several greenhouses, more than 12,000 pots hang from different heights, holding a variety of herbs, sprouts, mustards and salad mixes.

The farm also uses an aquaponics system designed by Allen, which recreates a healthy stream through the symbiotic relationship between fish and plants. With 10,000-gallon pools dug 4 feet deep, Growing Power’s six aquaponic systems allow waste from 10,000 tilapia and perch to feed on greens and tomatoes. In turn, the plants purify the water for the fish. Eventually, both the fish and plants are harvested.

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The second obstacle: soil.

“(The soil is) a parking lot or a building or it’s contaminated to the point that you wouldn’t want to grow anything in it,” Stone said.

Growing Power cultivates its soil through an extensive composting operation that breaks down food waste, like beer mash from the Lakefront Brewery and old coffee grounds from Stone Creek Coffee Roasters. This compost eventually turns into healthy soil for planting.

Additionally, Growing Power raises red wiggler worms to create nutrient-rich fertilizer through its manure, or castings. In this process, called vermiculture, worms help break down compost, food waste and dying root masses. Stone said worms are in every potted plant and are an important sign of a healthy ecosystem.

“There’s a whole food chain going on (in the pots) and the worms are a keystone species of that food chain,” Stone said.

Cultivating a new generation
In addition to growing and selling food, Growing Power is dedicated to educating the community.

Director Karen Parker, who has worked at Growing Power since its inception in 1993, said her first staff was a group of teenage basketball players from the team Allen coached.

“They didn’t know anything about farming. They’d come in with a basketball under their arm and they’d put it down to pick some greens,” Parker said. “But that was (Allen). He took his kids from the basketball team and put them in a position where they had a job.”

Facility Manager Christman said the initial project with the neighborhood’s young men and women seemed like it was a “natural use” of the space and of Allen’s time and talents.

She said Allen’s work brought youth into a positive situation that could act as a sort of “beacon” in their lives — especially for at-risk teens.

More than 15 years later, Growing Power accepts volunteers of all ages and has a Youth Corps that trains young people in the basics of urban farming in both Milwaukee and Chicago.

Between the two cities there are more than 100 youths currently employed by Growing Power, Christman said.

“There are so many young people that aren’t just sluffing off or sitting in front of the TV,” Christman said. “They’re actually engaged in some sort of meaningful work.”

Planting ideas worldwide
Allen’s vision for food justice has also influenced people from all over the world.

Each year, 10,000 people take tours of Growing Power farms. About 3,000 people of all ages come from around the world to participate in training sessions and bring sustainable practices back to their communities.

Christman said the training and volunteer opportunities advance good farming practices, like building uncontaminated soil through composting and vermiculture, from this generation to the next. For this reason, work at Growing Power is very labor intensive, teaching volunteers to manually harvest greens, maintain compost piles and take care of livestock, among other things.

“We could have robots doing this and have two of us pressing buttons, but then we wouldn’t be engaging the community like we are,” Christman said.

As knowledge of Growing Power’s practices has expanded, Allen’s vision has captured the attention of former President Bill Clinton. Last month, Clinton pledged to help the nonprofit raise $1.9 million to bring its ideas overseas to Zimbabwe and South Africa.

In his speech, Clinton even called Allen his “hero.”

But Parker insists Allen was her hero first. The director said her time at Growing Power has given her a valuable education about food production and healthy eating habits. She said she has passed her education on to her children, neighbors and friends.

“I have a whole new outlook on life,” Parker said.

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