Monday, January 14, 2008

Growing Power - Push for Urban Agriculture

Milwaukee’s Growing Power Founder Pushes Urban Farming

Even city people need to go back to the soil, and there’s no reason they can’t, Will Allen says.

The former pro basketball player points to the ex-garden center that he transformed into an urban vegetable farm. Behind his five greenhouses, there’s a small barnyard of chickens, ducks and goats.

He works with youth groups, schools, churches and anyone else interested in learning how community gardens can change people for the better.

But the key to success, he said, is the compost he makes from waste food and other organic material, with the help of millions of earthworms that digest what otherwise would go to landfills.

“It’s all about the soil,” Allen said. “It’s all about the high nutrient compost that we grow, so we really grow soil first.

“If you grow soil, then you can grow healthy food,” leading, ultimately, to a healthy community, he said.

This week, his nonprofit Growing Power Inc. serves as host of a national conference Wednesday through Saturday for beginning and small-scale farmers.

Allen, 58, the director of Growing Power, said the event boosts Milwaukee as a “Mecca for food system work” and provides good news for a city that, like other urban areas, is often seen as dominated by poverty, unemployment and crime.

“We have so many negative things and we need something positive for Milwaukee,” he said.

The conference, with the lengthy title of Risk Management Strategies for Beginning and Small Farmers and Ranchers, was arranged with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency.

Bill Buchanan, director of civil rights and community outreach for the RMA, said Allen’s group was a natural choice for the event.

“Not only is Will very well-known nationwide and internationally, he creates a lot of innovative programs that can be done on small plots of land,” he said. “And also he’s willing to share his knowledge with anyone who wants it.”

Allen wasn’t surprised to see far more than the expected 400 people sign up for the conference. By late last week, he said about 700 had registered.

“The renaissance in urban agriculture is the hottest thing going right now,” Allen said.

His center is one example, with its greenhouses filled with the earthy smells of plants and herbs - a place where young people can work, learn and share his vision.

“You see kids who come in with this chip on their shoulder, and they don’t mess with dirt and they don’t do that stuff,” said Deshell Parker, 28. “By the end of the program you see them proud of what they’ve put together and what they’ve grown, be it tomato plants or whatever.”

She said exposure to Allen while working with him as an adolescent helped her develop the commitment to go to college and earn advanced degrees as a social worker. These days, her 5-year-old daughter is becoming an expert in recycling, vegetables and compost through her visits to the center, Parker said.

Her family lived next door to the two-acre property Allen bought in 1993, adjacent to an Army Reserve center on Milwaukee’s far north side.

Her mother, Karen Parker, has worked with Allen from the start and still serves as manager, overseeing things like the market basket program that sells weekly bags of fresh produce to area residents year-round.

She helps organize tours that show visitors how Allen raises vegetables in thousands of pots for efficient use of the greenhouse space, and how his self-sustaining system of fish farming raises lake perch and tilapia while circulating the water to feed growing plants.

“Everybody comes back and tells me it’s magical,” she said.

Allen puts his ideas on display by holding workshops on urban farming.

He also works with his daughter, Erika Allen, who manages a branch of Growing Power in Chicago.

He grew up on his family’s small vegetable farm outside Washington, D.C.

He left for the University of Miami, played basketball and was drafted in 1971, joining the Miami Floridians of the American Basketball Association as a 6-foot-6 forward. He played the next three years in Europe before returning to the U.S., where he got back into vegetable farming in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek.

Then came his purchase of the former garden center and its development into an example of the community-based farming that Allen promotes.

“This year we’ll rescue 6 million pounds of food residue and turn it into healthy soil,” he said.

Among that residue is the waste barley and hops from Lakefront Brewery LLC in Milwaukee.

“Some breweries just have to dispose of it, which is what we’re trying to avoid,” said Chris Ranson, who works with tour operations and environmental programs for the downtown microbrewer.

Instead, 15,000 pounds of the waste a week go to a farm outside of town where it’s mixed with organic vegetable matter and left for a year, with worms added to turn it into compost.

“The result is that ‘black gold,’ the worm castings,” Ranson said. “We sell it in our gift shop.”

“You can put it right on your plants, or you can steep it” for use as a liquid fertilizer, she said.

Allen said community gardens also conserve fuel.

“Imagine if we weren’t doing this,” he said. “Everything that we’re delivering to grocery stores, to restaurants, to schools, to all of our customers, guess where it would come from - it would come from California, thousands of miles away.”

Growing Home - New Site for Urban Farming In Chicago

At the height of the summer, foodies jam Chicago farmers’ markets in pursuit of fresh fruit and heirloom vegetables. For nine years, the Chicago non-profit Growing Home has worked to transform perceptions that these markets are solely the hunting grounds of the well-heeled, by providing employment opportunities for homeless and low-income Chicagoans. Recruits of this “social enterprise” learn organic farming and produce marketing at a Back of the Yards urban market garden, and a LaSalle County farm. Yet Growing Home does more than teach farming. Through its innovative curriculum, participants acquire skills that ease transition into formal employment. With over 70% of its participants transitioning to some kind of employment, Growing Home stands at the forefront of efforts to diversify the sustainable agriculture movement, all the while moving people toward self-sufficiency.

If you could imagine an alternative food system (for Chicago or for your community), how would it operate and how would it be different from the current food system?

It would be real important for good, healthy fresh food to be more accessible, especially in low-income neighborhoods. A food system that encourages local farmers and people to grow locally, and sell it within their neighborhood, would be much better than what we have now. That can be done through incentives to local grocery stores to carry those products, incentives for farmers to be involved and sell in farmers markets in those areas. Right now the markets in poor areas tend to be real slow and not as worthwhile, so it’s hard to attract the farmers. Some type of incentive, either making it less costly to sell at those markets, or even monetary incentives, would be helpful.
One thing we’re looking at in Englewood is setting up more urban farms and working with local people to make what we grow accessible to local people, placing a big emphasis on ac-cess to food within that neighborhood. We work also on teaching people how to grow their own food. We have a training program that works specifically with the people in our program, but we also help community gardens get started.

What is Growing Home doing to enact this ideal scenario of local based food production and distribution networks?

We’ve been involved in a network of urban farmers called AUA, Advocates for Urban Agriculture. We put together a policy paper and shared it with people in the City. The City set up some task forces to look at urban agriculture, and it’s spread out to look at a lot of different food issues in Chicago. The City is interested in the work that we are doing, and in promoting food access around Chicago. By working on policy and advocacy, we can try to make it happen. We’re also part of the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council, a new group that is sponsoring a Food Security Summit in Chicago. The goal of the Summit is to put these issues on the table, and to work for policy changes, while we also get into the neighborhoods.

How has Growing Home attracted low income and homeless people to urban agriculture, and incorporated them into its business and operations?

We have a transitional job program that offers training and job experience, and pays people stipends while they are in our program. When we go out to recruit and tell people what we’re doing, “farming,” they respond, “What?! I’m in Chicago, I’m not going to be a farmer!” But when we go into more details about what people learn in this job experience, and that we also teach soft skills such as job readiness, help people with literacy and financial issues, and try to give as many marketable skills as possible, they see that it is not just about farming. People in our program also learn to sell what they grow at farmers’ markets, and they learn about food and nutrition. We try to make them understand that it’s a real opportunity, and our goal is to give them experience so they can then go out and find work. A lot of people are so desperate for anything that comes their way that they are especially interested when they see that people are trying to help them learn to help themselves.

We work with a number of transitional shelters, people who are already in transition, in temporary shelters. We also work with people who are in SROs (single room occupancies). We’ve made partnerships with a number of organizations over the years, and that’s where we go to do the recruiting. We also work with several organizations that do some type of employment training. They tend to do shorter, month-long programs, so we go in and recruit from their programs.

In the past couple years we’ve had a waiting list after we fill up. Most of the people are born Chicagoans, although we also work with some people who have come to Chicago from other countries. We reach out mostly to people who have been through the criminal justice system, about 90% of the people are ex-offenders of some sort, both men and women. Most have had some type of issue with substance abuse, and spent time in prison for possession of some type of substance. They’ve been out of the work world for a long time. If they have a felony, they have a difficult time finding work, which is a huge problem. We don’t recruit in prisons. We do recruit though through community-based organizations and employment agencies, mostly on the West and South Side that work with people that have come out of prison.

Many of the low-income people that traditional transitional job programs target have skill sets that don’t mesh well with the current job market. For instance, they have experience in manufacturing. So they often get shunted into employment within the ever-expanding service sector. These jobs are more plentiful than others, but they provide less financial security and room for advancement.

How does urban agriculture compare, as a form of employment, to these service sector jobs?

It’s a huge problem all around, the problem of the working poor. Our goal is full time work with benefits and a living wage. But if it turns out that people find a job where they are making nine or ten dollars an hour with benefits when they are done working with us, they’re doing well. That’s still not enough for a family to live on, but we think of it as a process that people have to go through, getting the job experience, and hopefully then finding jobs that pay better, with support systems in place.

What would it take to make urban agriculture a viable form of living wage employment?

There would have to be a lot more urban farms. Right now there just aren’t as many jobs available in urban agriculture, so we gear our participants toward landscaping, or working in the food and restaurant sectors, things that are related to our training. Most people who go through our program aren’t going to be farmers. One of our goals is to expand and build up our business so that we can provide more jobs, and we’ve re-hired three of our graduates who are now working with us.

Farming in general is not a high paid profession, but there are added benefits that come with farming. One of them is the food you grow. Anyone who works with us can take home as much as they want from what they grow. People work really hard, but it’s also seasonal work, which is good and bad. People have time off during the off season and they can supplement their income with other work. A lot of people tell us that the farming is very spiritual, getting their hands dirty and growing something, and they feel good about it afterwards. They can share what they grow and what they learn with their friends and family.

We also have a unique curriculum. Other organizations have purchased it. Not only does it teach horticulture and farming, but it also teaches life skills, food and nutrition. People learn what to do with the food that they are growing. We help people set up bank accounts; most people in our program have never had one. All of these things seem like little things, but they are big.

How do you address the possibility that the produce that sells best at farmers markets, is maybe unfamiliar to the people who farm with you?

We grow some high-end stuff, but we also grow things that are culturally appropriate. We grow a lot of collard greens and kale, foods from the South that most of the people in our program are more familiar with.
One of the places that we sell is at the Hyde Park Farmers’ Market (52nd Place and Harper Avenue in Hyde Park), which is one of the most diverse farmers’ markets in Chicago. Everything from collards to kale to tomatoes goes pretty well there. That speaks to the cultural diversity of trying to work at a market that’s not like the downtown markets, which cater mostly to middle and upper class people.

A lot of it is money, economics. People have this feeling that they won’t make money by selling in poorer neighborhoods, and that people in these neighborhoods don’t spend money on food. But people in these neighborhoods eat also. If you have the products there, and a good market, people will buy the food. People certainly think that there is more money in Evanston than in Hyde Park, for instance. So a lot of it is perceptions. We have tried one market in a low-income neighborhood that was a bust, but that was because we only had three farmers and it wasn’t a pleasant place to go shopping. In terms of sales, though, we actually do better at the Hyde Park Farmers’ Market than we do at that Green City Market (North of LaSalle Street between 1750 N. Clark and Stockton Drive in Lincoln Park), in terms of sales. We’re one of the few organic farmers at the Hyde Park Market. We do get undercut by the more conventional farmers there, but other people appreciate the quality of what we’re growing. So it’s a matter of the history of a market, and developing a market so that there are farmers there and people know about it.