Inner-city “concrete jungles” are starting to look more like real jungles thanks to urban farms. Under the tutelage of former Miami Hurricanes basketball star Will Allen, a growing cadre of city-farmers are growing their own food on rooftops, next to industrial railroads, on old baseball fields and even on abandoned concrete pads in downtown Chicago.
Allen is the star power behind Growing Power, Inc., a non-profit organization based in Milwaukee, Wisc. that seeks to nourish people of all ages, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds with lessons in farming, community building and social justice. He was also the star speaker Monday night at N.C. State University’s 2009 Sustainable Agriculture Lecture, organized by the Center for Environmental Farming.
“Industrial farming has led us down the wrong path,” Allen told an audience of about 300 at NCSU’s McKimmon Center in Raleigh. “People of all walks of life want to grow their own food today. But it’s not responsible to grow food in existing soil in our cities because of the contamination.”
Allen’s urban farm activism is dubbed the “Good Food Revolution,” and it comes at a time when many disparate factors have converged. Last year marked the first time that more people in the U.S. lived in cities than in rural areas. Our waterways and soil are increasingly polluted from industrial agriculture processes. Modern medicine is beginning to recognize that people are becoming ill from consuming diets of highly processed and chemically-enriched foods. There is a growing awareness of the unsustainable global use of fossil fuels to import food that could be grown locally. Activists and writers like Michael Pollan helped birth the Locavore movement.
The biggest challenge to urban farming, Allen said, is growing healthy soil. He discussed his urban composting techniques which rely on diverting perishable and nitrogen-rich food waste from the landfill. Each week, his farm collects two thousand pounds of used coffee grounds from a local café, and 20 thousand pounds of blemished and overripe or rotting produce from a local wholesaler. Seasonally, he buys moldy hay from local dairy farmers – relieving them of a product that is worthless to their operation, but that contributes vital carbon to the one million pounds of compost produced by his farm annually.
Allen’s farm then processes his compost with vermiculture, or worms. He has about $275,000 invested in his “billions of employees” which sell for about $25 to $25 per pound.
“Worms are our livestock,” he said, flashing slide after slide of kids holding up dark soil clods writhing with stringy red worms.
They use window screens to screen out the worms, and then use the clean organic soil to build produce beds within hoop houses and in open fields.
It helps, he said, to be on really good terms with your neighbors if you are going to be composting on this scale on a 2-acre farm within Milwaukee’s city limits. And so Allen made a conscious effort to embed his farm in the community by working with troubled kids, people with disabilities, local schools and even corporations.
He taught kids that had been through youth prisons how to use hand tools, build composting bins, and master the “lost art” of canning. He taught the blind how to build soil trays that nurture sprouts, and he worked with African immigrants, the elderly and community leaders.
“The community must see you as an asset, and then all things are possible,” he said. “Some of these kids we work with have done really bad things in the past. But they come to the farm and as soon as they touch the soil, they just mellow out. I’ve seen it happen time and time again.”
Allen’s Milwaukee farm – the last farm within the city – produces greens for local restaurants 365-days a year, and raises heirloom turkeys, Muscovy ducks, goats and bees in addition to dozens of salad greens. They sell their own worm castings for $4 per pound, and honey under the label “Urban honey” for $6 per eight-ounce jar. He also uses a 110-thousand gallon aquaponics system to grow 20 thousand tilapia, lake perch and coy. He grows his own black-fly larvae fish feed. Families can grow their own protein in their basements using this compact system, he said.
To power his Milwaukee operation, Allen invested in some renewable energy and worked with Univ. of Wisconsin at Green Bay microbiologists to design and build an anaerobic digester. The contraption sucks up a two million pound slurry of food waste and produces two thousand pounds of acetic acid which is then converted to methane. Allen burns some of the methane for power in an on-site generator, and sells some back to a local utility. Wasting nothing, he even piles the 130- to 150-degree compost into mounds in the interior of his plastic-draped hoop houses during the winter.
“This is the new ‘old’ agriculture,” Allen said. “Nothing we are doing is really new, we just put our own twist on it.” Part of that twist includes enrolling a youth corps and helping under privileged kids finish high school and get into college.
He also farms anywhere he can find space within cities. The mayor of Milwaukee asked Allen to convert flower beds outside City Hall to a farm, so he obliged and built beds and an apiary that now grow greens and honey for Second Harvest. He worked with Kohl’s Corporate Headquarters in downtown Milwaukee to build urban farms on their campus.
Allen’s Good Food Revolution spread into nearby Madison, setting up farms at public schools “where every grade now has their own garden,” he said. Next they spread into Chicago, planting farms on rooftops and covering inner-city concrete pads with 36-inch organic soil beds. He’s bringing his message to poor regions of the Deep South, and even to Kenya where he is helping communities in Nairobi overcome soil infertility problems.
“Urban farming is not just about food security,” Allen said. “That’s part of it, but it’s also about growing minds and growing communities. Our next generation of farmers is not going to come from rural areas, they are going to come from cities. And we need to nourish that.”