The next agricultural revolution won’t even take place on the farm – at least as we know it.
It will be potted and stacked, set up in hoop houses and warehouses, sprout from rooftops, vacant lots and lawns. Worms will be celebrated, bacteria will flourish and grubs nurtured. It will be drought and flood resistant and productive all year long.
The next agricultural revolution will be street-smart and urban, yet mimic nature far more closely than agro-giant operations sprawled over hundreds or even thousands of monotonous monoculture acres.
Best of all, the next agricultural revolution is well underway, just 5 blocks from Milwaukee’s largest public housing project, off a busy street, behind an unassuming farm-stand surrounded by sunflowers basking in the brilliant light of a mid-September afternoon. Welcome to Growing Power.
“The Big Food system hasn’t fed the world,” says Will Allen, urban farmer, MacArthur genius, share-cropper’s son, former basketball star, former corporate marketer,vermicompost evangelist and CEO of Growing Power. He is speaking to a group of environmental lawyers who have spent an hour digging a ditch after 2 hours touring Growing Power’s flagship 3-acre farm. They are flushed and sweaty and hang on every word. Here at last is a genuine answer that could just turn things around, no legal briefs required.
According to UN statistics, over a billion people do not have enough to eat, with tens of millions more added to the tally each year. Even in the U.S., an estimated 1 in 6 children – more than 12 million – are “food insecure.” A global recession, a series of increasingly severe droughts and floods (at least some likely driven or amplified by climate change), and competition for land between food and fuel crops have sent those living near the edge straight over it. Every 6 seconds, a child somewhere in the world dies from hunger or related causes.
Micronutrient malnutrition affects an estimated 2 billion people. One third of children in the developing world are vitamin A deficient, putting them at risk for blindness. Anemia from iron deficiency during pregnancy is linked to over 100,000 maternal deaths.
In the developed world, malnutrition is often masked by obesity. A diet of high-calorie, high-fat, fast food laced with high fructose corn syrup is not only a nutritional catastrophe, but also ups the odds for developing diabetes, heart disease and other assorted ills. Cheap food comes at a high cost that the poor, more than anyone else, have had to pay.
Fast food joints and liquor stores dot the neighborhood around Growing Power, but the nearest full-service grocery is several miles away. For all practical purposes, the neighborhood is a healthy food desert. American cities are rife with them.
Allen’s mission is to fill the gap: to bring fresh, healthy, affordable food to the urban poor, to green food deserts with greens…and eggs, honey, chickens, turkeys, ducks and fish. Lots of fish.
Walk through the door of the small shabby-neat one-room store – where a video of Allen extolling the wonders of worms plays on an old television perched on some equally vintage coolers stocked with a few cartons of eggs and miscellaneous produce – into the Growing Power greenhouses and you enter a world that makes such sense, the relief is palpable. It fairly hums with purpose.
Bounty beyond imagining bursts from a substrate of plywood, 2 x 4s, waterproof liners, pumps (some solar powered), pvc pipe, fluorescent grow lights and tens of thousands of plastic pots and seed trays. There is an order to the chaos, a rhythm and logic to the intertwining series of elegantly balanced ecosystems that together support over 150 varieties of vegetables, edible plants, poultry, a few goats and tens of thousands of fish.
So intensively is space used, each square foot generates between $5 and $30. That translates per acre between roughly $218,000 and a little more than $1.3 million, which is astonishing. By contrast, corn currently sells for about $3 per bushel. If you figure 200 bushels per acre – a bumper crop – that ‘s only $600. Comparing commodity grain crops to vegetables isn’t entirely fair: corn and wheat aren’t greenhouse-friendly. Still, this gives you some idea just how distorted and subsidy-addled the Big Food system has become. Factor in the cost of seed, fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, machinery, land and labor and what’s really being raised is a bumper crop of debt.
Allen’s harvest is also healthier because it is fresher, with fewer nutrients literally lost in transit. Tomatoes, produced year-round at Growing Power, sell when naturally ripe. Supermarket tomatoes, however, are often picked green, then exposed to ethylene gas to make them ripen in time for delivery, which usually involves a long-haul truck or an international flight.
In a rather poetic twist, fewer greenhouse gases are emitted from Allen’s greenhouse food because delivery is local.
Coir, eco-friendly coconut husk alternative to peat moss, is added to the compost mix to improve texture. An army of ravenous red wriggler worms do the rest. Seven or eight species chow down for a few months, releasing nutrients and leaving little gift trails of mucous that help soil retain water. As a measure of Growing Power’s growth over the last 15 years, the “starter” 30 pounds of worms has ballooned to 5,000 pounds. Their “castings”— staggering to imagine—are another crop, fertilizer gold bagged and sold for $4 per pound. The worms themselves, though, are priceless. To get a bucketful, you have to sign up for a workshop on their care and feeding, or otherwise prove yourself a fit parent: “…(W)e won’t give them to just anybody.”
Compost bins are everywhere. Outside, a massive compost windrow has been piled against a greenhouse wall to provide a bonus geothermal harvest: insulation and heat. Even in the dead of a Wisconsin winter, when zero degrees looks like a warming trend, it is equator hot inside the mound and the party never stops. Feasting on 20,000 to 30,000 pounds of brewery waste each week (this isMilwaukee after all), these worms are so delighted (drunk?) with their lot in life, no thought of escaping into the wild ever seems to enter their tiny happy heads.
Systems thinking is, perhaps, Growing Power’s defining feature. This is biomimicry on a sweeping scale, with careful attention paid to the smallest details and profound delight taken from learning how to work within Nature’s symbiotic set-up.
If you shut your eyes, it is easy to imagine that the pervasive background burble is a stream in the woods and not water being pumped via pvc pipe from a 6-foot-deep, fish-filled trench called a raceway up onto shelves packed with plants several feet overhead. The plants – tomatoes,watercress, basil, among others – thrive on a diet of fish poop-enriched water, which they filter and drip back to the pond/raceway, fresh and clean.
Aquaponics, a closed loop system for raising fish, herbs and vegetables, is so exquisitely balanced, water to top-off the tank only need be added occasionally.
Cold water lake perch and warm water tilapia swim among the greens at Growing Power. In the spirit of endless recycling, heat from the 85 degree tilapia water helps warm the greenhouses, while the fish nibble on plant waste. A moveable feast of floating papyrus – shades of the Fertile Delta – provide tilapia with a treat of tender roots in one of the above-ground set-ups.
Perch are omnivores, so also munch on home grown worms and commercial fish feed. One the dirtiest secrets of commercial aquaculture is the need to trawl wild waters for massive amounts of smaller fish to process into food for farmed fish, so Allen is experimenting with a more eco-friendly solution: raising protein-rich soldier fly grub. Cheap, prolific, and virtually without carbon footprint (no shipping), chickens like them, too.
The perch—10,000 to a 10,000 gallon tank—not only grow 3 times as fast as their wild cousins in Lake Michigan a few miles east, but are alsomercury-free.
TAKING ROOT & SCALING UP
Allen holds a shovel for the ceremonial photo-op, tosses some dirt into a wheelbarrow and darts off to get his own camera to document the lawyers as they set about their appointed volunteer task: Digging a trench 6 feet deep and 3 feet wide for a rain catchment system designed to harvest enough water to handle all the greenhouses’ needs.
The lawyers go at it with gusto, quickly discovering just how heavy dirt can be, gamely whittling their way down a foot or two. It’s not easy. But the real lesson they have learned this day is that it’s not that hard.
Will Allen’s agro-urban miracle, breathtaking in it depth and detail, can be easily replicated and scaled. The steps are straightforward and simple: Start with waste. Honor worms. Think in terms of systems. Study Nature. Then, as Candide eventually figured out, watch your garden grow.
More waste, more soil. More soil, more plants. More plants, more fish. Water recycles, replenishes. Now repeat.
These are the real “Biosphere 2′s,” creating resilient little self-sufficient Edens exactly where they are needed most: right here on Biosphere 1.
What began as project for local teens on the last tiny bit of farmland in Milwaukee in the mid-1990s has blossomed into a network of small farms and a suite of regional training centers. A steady stream of Ph.D.’s and would-be Ph.D’s, mostly from the University of Wisconsin, bring a scientific rigor to the operation, measuring, documenting and providing technical assistance for a seemingly endless series of projects.
Big Food may have failed the world. Small, smart, savvy food may just save it. The urban agriculture revolution is alive and well and coming to a city near you.
Although Growing Power now has an enthusiastic national as well as an international following, nowhere has its example been more joyously embraced than in its home city, Milwaukee. Located halfway between Madison, a college town with a hippy past and an obsession for farmers’ markets, and Chicago, all skyline and swagger, Milwaukee mixes a do-able human scale with a some big city flash (read: easier and cheaper to park, a knock-out lakefront and did you see that stunning Calatrava-designed museum?!) In short, it is a very good place for ideas to grow quietly out of the limelight, but with plenty of help and expertise nearby.
As Growing Power ramped up its food business – it now provides thousands of low-income families access to affordable, healthy, fresh food and has built up a robust restaurant / school / grocery store clientele – it also grew as an educational resource. Long before the term “open source” became popular, sharing information was an integral part of the urban agriculture ideal. If Big Food is defined by patents and monopolies, small food counters with choice, education and collaboration. Know-how is a yet another “crop” at Growing Power, packaged in videos and workshops (see schedule / more).
Gretchen Mead, whose Victory Garden Initiative promotes planting veggies early, often and wherever possible, including front lawns (hers had a particularly tasty crop ofground cherries this year), is a big fan of Lindberg’s. Last spring she rounded used kiddie pools for him to recycle as giant planters – perfect for patty pan squash. If you plant them, they will grow..
But the most improbable of Milwaukee’s new farms, Sweet Water Organics, is located in a 6-acre industrial complex, next door to a steel rolling plant, three miles from downtown. Earlier this year, when a Dutch flower-bulb importer tenant was forced to downsize due to the recession, landlord Steve Lindner, another Growing Power graduate, found himself with a spare 11,000 sf. In the time it takes to say, “from tulips to tilapia,” raceway trenches were being excavated for the first commercial scale up of Allen’s aquaponics system (aquaponics has been around for some time, but Allen, with help from University of Wisconsin – Sea Grant Institute, tweaked the design).
Soon worms were munching through small mountains of compost out back, while hundreds of pots filled with basil, watercress and sprouts were put in place under grow lights and tens of thousands of perch and tilapia fingerlings began swimming laps in their respective pools. Within 2 years, plans call for annual production of 100,000 fish, with revenue also coming in from herb sales, compost and worm casings.
Success is still a question mark and Lindner, along with his partners Josh Fraundorf and James Godsil – a Growing Power board member – are working closely with an array of University of Wisconsin aquaculture experts. Over $100,000 has been invested so far, but with perch going for as much as $7 per pound, tilapia for $4 and basil for $18, they’re hopeful.
A lot of people, including Will Allen, are watching closely. If Sweet Water works, it would be easy to replicate in other cities, redefining “industrial agriculture” while greening up the rust belt.
Over the last 50 years, a million farm jobs have been lost from consolidation and mechanization, Allen estimates, noting that the next generation of farmers likely won’t come from farms. Only 2% of the U.S. population still lives on farms and 40% of farmers are now in their mid-50s, staring at retirement. “I believe we can grow thousands of jobs creating this new food system,” he says.
- Healthier food
- Accessible to everyone, poor and rich alike
- Reduced carbon footprint and reliance on petrochemicals
- Smarter waste recycling and water use
- Flexible and adaptable enough to work anywhere
- Better able to survive, recover and rebuild after a catastrophic weather event
- Comparatively inexpensive to set up; no patented seeds required
- Job creation
In a world stressed to its resource limits in so many ways, where merely managing to maintain status quo can feel like progress, Allen and the other urban farmers are pioneering a new promising path. By following Nature’s lead maybe, just maybe, we can get ourselves back to the garden.
First, though, we have to plant it.
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- Will Allen, MacArthur Fellow
- Growing Power blog & Will Allen’s post, “A Good Food Manifesto”
- Video Tour of Growing Power: Vermicomposting
- Video Tour of Growing Power: Greenhouse Growing
- Video Tour of Growing Power: Aquaponics
- Aquaponics video, University of Wisconsin – Sea Grant Institute
- “Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear,” Vanity Fair article by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele
- Seed Savers Exchange: non-profit organization of gardeners dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds
- “Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food—Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their
- Consequences: Report to Congress,” USDA – Economic Research Service
- “Investing in the Future: A United Call to Action on Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies,”UNICEF report
- The Biomimicry Institute, founded by Janine Benyus
- “AskNature: The Biomimicry Design Portal,” Brain Pickings article by Kirstin Butler
- “Fresh”: clips from Sofia Jones’ documentary – Russ Kremer, Will Allen, Joel Salatin, Michael Pollan
- Colbert Report interview with Eric Schlosser, co-producer of “Food, Inc” and author of “Fast Food Nation”
- Author Michael Pollan’s website: (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “In Defense of Food”)
- Urban Agriculture magazine (produced by the RUAF Foundation – Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security)
- Urban Farm magazine