Growing Power: Community-Based Agriculture in an Urban Environment

October 29th, 2008 · No Comments

[Expanded with the original ending for the web.]

Modern industry thrives on the perception that consumers have a wide variety of choices. As we walk down the aisles of large grocery stores, we experience an apparently unending variety of products to choose from. Yet, as any customer who wants organic and local food will tell you, the supermarket provides limited, if any, options. Furthermore, while it is typical for us to eat two or three dozen varieties of fruits, grains, and vegetables, it is typical for societies with traditional food systems to be exposed to thousands of food choices. One only needs to look across the landscape of Iowa to see the illusion: the endless rows of genetically identical corn, descendants of a few of the 2000 varieties of corn Native Americans grew, on land that was once filled with tremendously biodiverse prairie. Many people who have seen or experienced the contradictions of modern agriculture are acting to change and diversify our agricultural systems.

While modern agriculture is becoming increasingly monocultural, we are simultaneously seeing an increasing diversity of local produce; and while modern agriculture has fed the growing population of billions of people around the world with increasingly refined techniques, local agriculture will feed people in ways we have never seen. Last winter I worked with an organization where I had the opportunity to obtain a glimpse of what local agriculture can become in an increasingly urbanized world. Growing Power, Inc. is a nonprofit located on the last remaining farm within the city limits of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Last year, Growing Power fed hundreds of people, and generated $500,000 in sales, with most of the production coming from just two acres. The Growing Power headquarters has a shop in the front for the local community, and it also runs a regional cooperative to coordinate marketing and production together. Visiting its shop is a bit deceiving, as there is far more going on in the back.

Walking through Growing Power is like walking through a miniature agricultural version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Each row along the greenhouse is a multi-tiered shelf of plants and animals. On the bottom are thousands of tilapia and lake perch, which grow quickly and sell for $5 each. From the bottom layer, water is pumped to the layers above, which have all sorts of salad greens and sprouts growing in ordinary pots and trays. The fish waste fertilizes the plants, while the plants and microbes in the soil clean out the water. Each week, Growing Power brings in 50 tons of food waste from food distributors and turns it into soil by feeding it to worms. Generated from waste, the end result is a soil that is so rich that it is sold as a top dressing fertilizer for $5 a pound. The farm generates its own fertility and has the opportunity to use it generously – all the pots are filled with a mixture of worm castings and crushed coconut shells. Outside are raised beds that grow very prodigiously and are sold at $5 a square foot ($250,000 an acre). And, on top of everything, Growing Power has built a one-of-a-kind digester, which produces methane from food waste and is going to heat and power the whole operation. Through a lot of hard work and resourcefulness, Growing Power shows how people can generate a dream (and a diet) out of things we discard.

While Growing Power innovates and produces, its primary function is to serve as a demonstration for other communities to show the means of generating wealth from the ground up. Every year, thousands of people tour through Growing Power and attend workshops on their techniques. And, when asked, Growing Power consults across the country and the world. In dense urban areas, where soil is not readily available, Growing Power shows how to create gardens on unused concrete lots, by simply laying a two foot layer of locally generated compost directly over the concrete and growing plants in it. Growing Power has dozens of community programs and its Youth Corps has turned out dozens of graduates, many of whom were underprivileged, and mentored them all the way to college. I, on the other hand, decided to spend some time away from college to work on this unique farm and learn to produce from my own hands. No matter who you are or where you come from, the farm extends the invitation to learn and to grow. As the farm’s workers often say, Growing Power also grows people.

Will Allen is the brains and brawn behind Growing Power, above and beyond its Willy Wonka. A remarkable man to say the least, he forms the vision and sets the example. Throughout his life, Will has learned and practiced a wide variety of crafts. He grew up on a farm, and was the first African-American basketball player at Miami University, from where he went on to the pros. Going on to practice all sorts of trades and professions, he eventually settled in Milwaukee, where he bought the city farm. Knowing nothing about worms or aquaponics, but having years of body and mind behind him, Will grew Growing Power as it exists today from the ground up. Recently Will was one of 25 people who won the MacArthur Genius Grant, a no-strings attached $500,000. Resources are being raised, as his next project is to build further up and out. On the Milwaukee farm, Growing Power is planning a 5-story greenhouse. Will’s vision is an urban agriculture in even the most densely populated areas in multi-story buildings. The vision is spreading – even though Will is larger than life, Growing Power has begun to grow beyond him, having outposts all across the country, and is very involved in urban and regional planning and policies. It has become a catalyst for so many people, and is a very important part of the broader movement for local and regional food systems.

As Growing Power encourages diversity, it is insightful to learn that culture is derived from cultivate. For everyone who goes through Growing Power, Will says, “Don’t do things exactly like how we do them.” When I came back to Ames, Iowa after my experience, in many little ways I have started my own techniques based on a variety of philosophies, including that of Growing Power.  As I tried different things, I realized that there is, like in nature, no one way of producing, and everyone who is involved producing food will have their own philosophies that can exist in parallel with and feed off of each other. Though I did little and the seed was small, I would have not been able to do anything without some skills passed down from Will. He and the people who have followed him have mentored and passed down knowledge to thousands of people, and what matters more than the technique is that we all take part in the world we live from and share and gain from each other.

To learn more about Growing Power go to

Will Allen’s Genius Grant:

Nitin’s blog on food:

Tags: 2008 · AP Issues · Commentary · October 2008

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