Wednesday evening’s talk from Will Allen, CEO of the Milwaukee based urban farming company Growing Power, Inc., proved to be an intimate and informative experience for community members, college faculty and students. The event was prefaced by a mellow acoustic set by the local duet Oh Valentino, with tunes ranging from “I Will Wait” to “You’re the One That I Want” rendered into down home harmonies and a warm guitar. After a brief introduction by the Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences Jerold L. Heil and a preview of Allen’s upcoming TV show “The Will Allen Revolution,” Allen himself took to the stage.
His signature blue Growing Power hoodie and University of Miami baseball cap, while casual, belied the Aiken, S.C. native’s opening remarks: “This is probably the most important talk I’ve given because I’m here in South Carolina.” After the applause that followed, he delivered the hard facts of farming—we have lost 1 million farmers since 1960, and in America today there are 23 million food deserts, defined by the USDA as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food.” 99 percent of the food in Milwaukee, New York, New Jersey and most major cities in the United States is shipped in from elsewhere.
Over the course of an hour long talk and a 1,050 slide Powerpoint presentation, Allen showed the audience everything Growing Power has done in hopes of finding a solution to these issues and providing communities with healthy, local and accessible food. “It’s not like we want to take what we’ve found here and hid it in a closet,” Allen said. “We’re going to pass it on to everybody who comes through here.”
Growing Power began 20 years ago when Allen purchased the last farm in Milwaukee, a lot that in his presentation seemed dilapidated and useless. As they grew, they engaged the community, enlisting their help to grow fresh produce and fish to eat as well as flowers to beautify the neighborhood.
Throughout his talk, Allen emphasized the importance of community engagement as much as he did the quality of the soil. With a touch of laughter, he said that they were able to produce 1 million pounds of high quality compost only 200 feet away from their neighbors because through community engagement, their practice had become accepted. The three acre Milwaukee facility saw 30,000 visitors last year, including Walmart executives.
The system developed by Growing Power seemed to embrace sustainability in every sense of the word. Food waste collected from the community is cycled through an anaerobic digester, which uses it to produce methane. The aquaponics system is heated by solar power and by the composting process. Wood chips for composting come from the branches cleared for power lines. Black soldier flies eat pests on the crops, and their larvae feed the fish and leave castings to be composted by worms. Planting vertically maximizes space, and an empty lot or an abandoned laundry facility becomes a farm producing food at $5 per square foot for as many as 10,000 people.
After he finished speaking, Allen opened up for questions from the audience. One man told how he had tried starting a small urban farming operation in Charleston, but felt that he had failed. Close to tears, he offered the property of his first house to Growing Power as land to plot and start a branch in Charleston. This was met with loud applause, and Allen was very gracious. While he did not directly accept the donation on stage, he encouraged the man to keep trying.
While several people sought his farming knowledge and wisdom, he advised that farming is the toughest profession in the world, and that you never stop learning. “Practice the art of farming in a hands on way. Grow what you like to eat. Grow a variety of crops, fruit trees, flowers. Experiment, do your own research—that’s what makes it fun.”
More about Will Allen and Growing Power, Inc. can be found on their Facebook page and website, www.growingpower.org.