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Growing Power brings farming to the city


April 29, 2014 | 02:34 PM
Will Allen grew up on a small farm in Maryland, and all he wanted to do was get away from the farm.

Speaking at George Williams College’s Earth Day program on April 23, Allen said the last thing he expected was to be recognized as one of the leading experts in urban agriculture.

Today he is touted as a founding father of small city farms. His nonprofit corporation, Growing Power Inc., headquartered in Milwaukee, has dotted urban landscapes around the world with small, sustainable farms that grow food year round.

Starting in Milwaukee and expanding to Chicago, Madison, then Cleveland, then New York, and more recently London and now Paris, Allen said he’s found a growing movement among city dwellers who want to know where their food comes from.

Growing Power now has 70 projects active around the world.

Most of the food in our grocery stores is picked, packed and peddled from more than 1,000 miles away, Allen said. Some of it takes nearly two weeks to reach the stores, which, by then, much of its nutrition is gone.

“People forgot where the food came from and the advertisers took over our minds,” Allen said.

This system has left America awash in edibles. But many are not the right edibles.

Other foods are so heavily processed that they lack nutrition, and they’re downright hazardous, he said.

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The nation is facing an epidemic of diabetes and obesity that can be traced back to our foods, Allen said.

 “We have enough food, but we don’t have enough good food,” Allen told a crowd of 170 at the Winston Paul Educational Center on the Williams Bay campus. “Our grandparents and great grandparents wouldn’t recognize our food.”

As transportation costs increase, the system is becoming more and more expensive

“Industrial food doesn’t work,” Allen said.

It is time for food growing to become local, he said.Finally, the retail component has also failed in our food system. Grocery stores locate where they can maximize profits, leaving many people living in “food deserts,” where the nearest grocery store is a mile or more away, Allen said.

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Many people living in these “deserts” are the poor and elderly, who have limited means of transportation, he said.

Allen is the holder of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant and was one of Time magazine’s 2010 one hundred most influential people.

The second youngest of six children, Allen said his father taught his children the principles of farming and raising food.

But Allen said he didn’t want a career in farming. He went to the University of Miami and was the first scholarship black athlete on its basketball team. He graduated with a degree in education, but his first love was basketball.

He was drafted by the NBA and the old American Basketball Association. He played in the ABA for a season and then went overseas to play professional basketball in Europe.

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While playing in Belgium, he began to take note of the intensive farming practices there.

When Allen returned to the states, he married a woman from Oak Creek, and made the Milwaukee area his home. Her family had owned a farm in the Milwaukee area.

Allen took a job with Proctor & Gamble and was involved in corporate sales.

And in the middle of the city, he rediscovered his roots.

In 1993, looking forward to retirement, he took over operation of a rural Milwaukee County farm and bought three acres at 55th Street and Silver Spring Drive on Milwaukee’s north side where he planned to locate a market to sell produce.

He later learned he had the last three acres in the city still zoned for agriculture.

Allen decided that he had enough room on the land to set up his own intensive agriculture farm in the city, similar to the rural Belgian farms he had seen.

The whole direction of the project changed when children from a nearby public housing project came to Allen and asked if he would teach them how to grow food.

Allen then combined his education degree with his farming background and began an urban farming teaching program through Youth Corps.

In 1995, Allen formed Growing Power. Over the next 20 years, he and others who were attracted to the project began experimenting with and refining processes to grow food in an urban setting.

They even began to breed goats.

Plenty of critics said urban farms were impossible, Allen said.

“They said the soil is contaminated and you can’t grow anything in it,” he said. So the farmers at Growing Power made their own soil. Growing Power’s composting operations make thousands of tons of soil a year, Allen said. The growing soils are elevated above the ground on wooden pallets, he said.

Critics also contended that the cost of urban water and utilities would be prohibitive. Growing Power farmers then adapted and developed water recycling systems, installed solar power panels at its greenhouse growing centers and used the heat generated by composting to heat greenhouses in winter.

To their urban agriculture, Growing Power farmers have added aquaculture. The Milwaukee farms are now raising tilapia and lake perch in special gardens in which the fish and plants nurture and support each other, Allen said.

Meanwhile, Growing Power has not lost its educational component. Hundreds of people take the Growing Power “From the Ground Up” courses on urban food gardening.

Today, Growing Power employs about 100 people in Milwaukee alone. It runs a café on Martin Luther King Drive in Milwaukee, turns out food baskets for the needy, sells its produce at local markets and has dotted the city landscape with small, urban farms.

Richard Boniak, assistant academic dean at George Williams College and chairman of sustainability and environmental management, said this is the second year that the college has sponsored a series of lectures and seminars called the Chapin-May Lecture Series for Social Entrepreneurship.

The lectures, funded by Chapin-May Foundation of Illinois, brings leaders and experts to the college to present sustainable solutions for societal needs, Boniak said.

This year’s program was capped by Allen’s presentation at the Earth Week event, which is co-sponsored by the Geneva Lake Environmental Agency and the Geneva Lake Conservancy.

“We’re looking at speakers who can motivate young people,” Boniak said.


Tags: Geneva Lake West

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