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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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In Creating Fleet of Sustainable, Urban Farmers, Milwaukee-based Growing Power Seeks to End World Hunger

February 13, 2012 |

Will Allen, CEO and founder of Growing Power, Inc., has a straightforward goal – to end world hunger.

“It’s a lofty goal, but that’s how things should be,” said Allen, a sharecropper’s son who was a professional basketball player when he rediscovered his love for agriculture. “The only way to end world hunger is the local food system that we used to have. … Everybody would buy local food if it was available. We don’t have the infrastructure right now, so one of the things I wanted to do is prove that this could be done and this could be cash-flowed.”

Allen’s key for building the local food market is urban agriculture, which he teaches by example. The 63-year-old has received various honors for his work, which has had an impact across the country and world.

What started as a small business venture turned into a small nonprofit through which Allen taught youth where their food came from by having them participate in his farm activities. That eventually transformed into a major multi-faceted organization with a $6-million budget that teaches people all over the country about urban and sustainable farming.

Community Food Systems and Centers

Growing Power is a developer of Community Food Systems and Community Food Centers, where people can receive active demonstrations and training in sustainable growing methods, outreach and technical assistance.

Growing Power’s prototype for a successful Community Food Center is its Milwaukee headquarters, the organization’s first food production site. Allen said he bought the three-acre farm in 1993, and it was the last farm in the city at the time.

At the site, there are six traditional greenhouses, various types of hoop houses (which have different focuses, such as aquaponics and poultry), an apiary with nearly 20 beehives, outdoor pens for livestock, an anaerobic digester, a rain catchment system and a retail store. The store sells produce, meat, worm castings and compost. The farm serves as a site for national workshops and a learning facility for schools, universities, government agencies, corporations, farmers, activists and community members.

Aerial view of Growing Power headquarters in Milwaukee. Photo: Growing Power

The idea is to teach urban agriculture methods that focus on environmental sustainability, Allen said, noting that the organization trains more than 1,000 farmers a year.

“In terms of taking up farming, Instead of acres, think of square footage and intensive agriculture,” Allen said. “To do that, you have to have really good soil fertility. … The fertility of the soil means that you can grow plants closer together in smaller spaces and use space using multiple-level growing—getting very creative—versus growing on one plane like (many farmers) do.”

He said there is also a need to provide food that is healthier and not just grown in a way that ensures it can be shipped across the country. He noted that the organization is working with corporations that deliver to facilities such as hospitals and schools, and it is getting its food into Walmart stores and other stores. It also has its own food cooperative that includes more than 300 small farmers.

Growing Power also has rural farms in various parts of Wisconsin, urban farms in Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison, Wisc., and about 15 satellite regional training sites across the country. It provides technical assistance nationwide, and even internationally. Growing Power has even hosted national conferences focused on food security, Allen said.

A Growing Awareness of Urban Agriculture

Growing Power founder, Will Allen, speaking at a workshop. Photo: Growing Power

Damien Forshe, co-owner of Rid-All Green Partnership in Cleveland, Ohio, is one person who has been inspired by Growing Power. Forshe, who was working with a couple of friends to start a business in urban farming, visited Allen’s Milwaukee headquarters after hearing him speak at an event, and then signed up for Growing Power’s five-month commercial urban agriculture training program. He was later asked to make his business a Growing Power regional training center, Forshe said. Rid-All Green Partnership now has three hoop houses and a greenhouse where aquaponics tanks are used to grow tilapia fish and vegetables.

“Will Allen came to Cleveland about three or four times in the course of 2010 and 2011,” Forshe said. “We (organized) some workshops, creating some aquaponic tanks. We did some compost classes, and we did some hoop house erection classes.”

Nonprofit organization Feed Denver: Urban Farms & Markets, is another regional training center. Lisa Rogers, the organization’s executive director, said she has seen how Allen’s work has helped spread awareness about urban agriculture. He particularly became a public “lightning rod” in the movement after he won the MacArthur Foundation grant in 2008, she said.

“(Urban farming) is spreading like crazy,” Rogers said. She noted that over the past three years, the Denver metropolitan area went from having about five urban farmers to now about 25 professional urban farmers.

“People are getting into greenhouse growing and our school garden program has exploded in Colorado,” she said. “All those things are coming together, whereas three years ago, just sort of the fringe, crafty people would do that.”

Transforming Vacant Space

For Growing Power, food production occurs in various types of settings. Besides its farms, Allen said the organization also has much smaller sites located in places like rooftops and vacant lots. When adding these to the farms, Growing Power has a total of 20 food production sites, which are mainly in Milwaukee. These locations had about 200 acres under production in 2011, and Allen said that will double this year after about 10 more sites are added.

“We get land from vacant parking lots, because we grow on asphalt and concrete,” Allen said. “There’s a lot of vacant land in these major, old industrial cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Michigan, Buffalo (in New York) and Pittsburgh, where industry has gone south and has left a big void there.”

Allen says the organization puts two feet of new soil on top of existing soil, asphalt or concrete, so they are able to grow without contaminating the food. Then compost is applied and acts as a sponge, taking in all the water that would typically become run off, he said. He noted that the organization leases land from a variety of entities, including private companies and school districts.

In one effort to increase the number of these sites, the organization teamed up with the city of Milwaukee last year to create urban agriculture jobs for 150 low-income city residents over a three-year-period. Growing Power committed to hiring the new employees and training them to build 150 hoop houses, or inexpensive greenhouses, on vacant lots and also teaching them how to grow food using the organization’s methods. In March 2011, Milwaukee’s Common Council approved a contribution of $425,000 toward the plan.

One of the next items on Allen’s to-do list is to build a five-story vertical farming structure, which he said will be the first of its kind in the world, at his Milwaukee headquarters. The building, which he compared to having five greenhouses stacked on top of each other, will house a retail store, a commercial kitchen, 24 offices and a few classrooms. It will be able to hold about 400 people on the second floor for conferences and trainings, he said.


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