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Will Allen and the urban farming revolution

I’m blogging from Camden, Maine, at the wonderful Pop!Tech conference. This year’s a special treat. My wife, the lovely Velveteen Rabbi, and I are team-blogging, trading off posts. You can read her posts on her website, or just read all of ours on the Pop!Tech site, where Michelle Riggen-Ransom has been doing brilliant work thus far. There’s lots of bloggers in the crowd and on twitter – follow the #poptech tag for lots of different perspectives.

Will Allen is redefining farming. His farm is a set of greenhouses in a corner of Northwest Milwaukee, walking distance from the city’s largest housing project. His farm doesn’t just feed 10,000 local residents – it’s a source of jobs, of training in polyculture and transformation of waste into food, and a model for the future of urban farming.

Will Allen, photo by Kris Krüg

Will’s a soft-spoken guy, a former Proctol and Gamble executive, who’s been transformed into a farming innovator. He thanks Michael Pollan for being “the world’s greatest framer” in explaining the global food crisis, and especially in our inner cities. The global migration into cities means we’ve got to figure out how to feed these folks in the future, without totally destroying our environment.

Allen’s talk is focused on solutions – how do we bring good food into “food deserts”, places that have been redlined by grocery stores. It’s a social justice issue, not just an health and environmental issue. There are now ten farms in Allen’s project, over 100 acres in the city of Milwaulkee. The farm is located in a food desert – the nearest grocery store is four miles away, and his neighbors, living in housing projects, often don’t have access to transportation.

His solution is to produce food in cities, year-round. In the process, these farms grow communities. The project began in 1993, when Allen bought the last working farm in Milwaulkee. He shows us a photo of local kids in those days – we can tell the photo’s dated, he tells us, because the kids have their pants pulled up.

The farm was built around greenhouses and composting. This moved to aquaponics, growing fish and plants in the same system. The farm produced tilapia, vegetables and also bedding plants that could be used to landscape the community. The youth that got involved with the project ended up bringing in the parents.

By working so closely with the kids, Allen realized that they weren’t learning to read and write. So he began teaching those skills in a farming context, along with dying arts like canning. Some of the students involved came from the juvenile justice community – by planting flowers, they found a way to pay society back. By providing summer jobs, the project helped fight drug dealing… filling vacant lots with flowers had a similar effect.

By 1995, the project made the front page of the Milwaulkee Journal. At this point Allen was working mostly on his own farm, and volunteering in this inner-city farm. The attention turned the project into a movement, a movement he sees aligned with the community supported agriculture movement: Growing Power.

The center Allen has build has a co-op of three hundred farmers who distribute food as far as Chicago, focusing on food deserts.

Growing Power is a multicultural, multigenerational organization. More than 10,000 people a year come to see and tour the facility. And Allen’s trained people in more than 15 countries around the world on the model he’s used to change agriculture and food in his community.

Most communities grow about 1% of their food locally – imagine if we transformed that to 10%. The pushback from industrialized agriculture means we’re doing something right. We’re going to see pushback from groups like Waste Management International as well, which is working hard to rebrand themselves as green. “I go to landfills and the only wildlife I see are seagulls and really big rats.”

The key to farming is soil, transforming waste into soil. This means buying moldy hay from farmers and spoiled fruit from grocery stores, add brewery waste and wood chips and compost the results into rich soil. A four-pallet design using quarter-inch mesh is approved in most urban areas, because they keep out rodents. These designs are important, but we need to scale up, producing thousands and thousands of yards of new soil to replace contaminated soil. Allen’s farm has over 5,000 pounds of worms – when you feed the soil to them, you can create a hundred thousand pounds of worm castings, which he describes as “the best organic fertilizer you can get.” Worms are also a great way to connect with kids, as kids love worms.

“There’s so many bugs in a worm bin, you’re going to find something that you like.”

Worms eat their weight daily, which means you’ve got to feed your worms 5,000 pounds of food daily. A shovelful of worm castings was food waste six months ago, and it’s now more effective than Miracle Gro.

Inexpensive systems allow Allen to raise Lake Perch and tilapia in conjunction with other crops. The fish eat black soldier fly larvae, which are extremely high in protein – this leads towards increased sustainability in the operation, and Allen tells us that he can build acquaculture systems for $5,000 as opposed to commercial systems that cost twenty times as much.

The farm can produce products at $5 a square foot, $200,000 an acre. Growing high revenue products like sprouts, it can be as high as $1.2 million an acre. This is critical, because we’re losing agricultural land. So we need vertical farms, farms that grow products on multiple levels within a greenhouse. By focusing on foods that are nutrient-rich, we’re turning the clock back to the 1950s, when food was better for us.

While solar energy is helping Allen with electricity, he’s now experimenting with anaerobic digesters. Food waste is turned into acetic acid. Using bacteria that can process it into methane, the digester is able to produce power and sell it back to the grid. The next step is using agricultural waste from animals like heirloom turkeys. Allen tells us that one of the most properous forms of urban farming is beekeeping – projects in Chicago are helping ex-offenders make money through honey production.

Allen could clearly talk all day – he mentions projects with autistic children, blind kids, ethnic immigrant senior citizens. He shows us how the mayor of Milwaukee built a garden at City Hall, how Rockwell Automation created a farmstand for their employees, how a graveyard gained a market garden, a ballfield turned into a community farm. His slide deck is 565 slides long… and it’s clear that his passion and creativity are equally unlimited. “Every generation needs to be part of this revolution.”

(Allen gets a standing ovation, the first one today.)

4 thoughts on “Will Allen and the urban farming revolution”

  1. Dear Allen, I have read about your enourmous leap into providing the education needed to help the millions of people understand the importance of what it is your doing. I have been involved in the understanding and designing of vertical farming for about 7 years in Canada, a nd have just visited Chicago to start the process.
    We are pleased to let you know that we have developed a building structure that allows us to grow whatever it is you need for food production,in the heart of each city withouot the high cost of construction.

    We believe that to feed the next three Billion people we will have to build 26,000 facility’s each one ranging 42,000,000 sq/ft is size to grow the food needed.
    This has to get started and tought like you have over the past 15 years. Congradulations on your bid to help and teach the basics of survival for the community’s.

    If there is anything that we can be of help with, please feelfree to contact us at: info@lexcoat.com

    Or call us at 1-877-LEX-COAT (539-2628)


    Torsten Klasen
    LexCoat International Inc.

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  4. Small but telling point: Pollan is not the world’s greatest framer. I don’t think he’d like to be called that.

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