Growing Power is an urban farm and organization started by Will Allen in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Growing Power produces a giant range of foods- all types of produce along with fish (tilapia or yellow perch), eggs, goat’s milk, duck, and honey. In total, the farm grows 150 crops and produces 1 million pounds of food annually on just 3 acres. And it’s in the middle of a city.
Growing Power employs many creative methods to be able to produce so much food in such little space. In the greenhouses where the farm grows its veggies, there are many different layers and shelves of plants stacked to maximize the space. Growing Power also combines hydroponics (growing plants in nutrient solution, without soil) with aquaculture (fish farming) in an arrangement called Aquaponics. This system pumps water from the fish tank to the plants growing above. In this water is fish waste- which contains many nutrients like Nitrogen that fertilize the plants. As the plants absorb these nutrients and filter the waste out in the process, the newly cleaned water flows back down to the fish who add their waste to it, and the cycle continues. Instead of having an output of waste and an input of chemical fertilizer, Growing Power imitates a healthy natural system to create a waste-free cycle. To warm the water for these fish, the farm utilizes solar energy rather than natural gas.
Instead of using chemical pesticides, Growing Power gets rid of its pests with beneficial insects like ladybugs, hand picking weeds or spraying compost tea on the leaves. Compost tea is basically liquefied compost, made by soaking compost in water. Compost tea’s pesticidal properties come from the beneficial bacteria and fungi carried in it, which compete with and get rid of harmful bacteria or fungi. Also, the soil is key. Growing crops in nutrient-rich compost gives the plants all they need to stay healthy, strong, and less vulnerable to pests.
Growing Power also farms year round even though it snows in Milwaukee and is below freezing for three months of the year. The farm is able to grow in the winter by using compost as a heat source. In the corners of the greenhouses are piles of composting organic matter. The many different microorganisms in the compost give off heat as they carry out their many processes to decompose the food waste into soil. (The center of a compost pile can be more than 150ºF.) This produces high quality soil and allows the farm to grow food in the otherwise impossible conditions of such cold weather. Growing Power collects waste from the local newspaper, brewery, coffe shop, and a few markets- a total of 10 million pounds of waste per year. This means 10 millions pounds of waste that aren’t going into landfills but instead helping to produce a variety of foods.
While Growing Power produces food in amazing ways, a huge part of their goal is also to build community. Because the company is not working for profit, it can put a lot of time and energy into outreach and education without worrying too much about money. The farm offers free daily tours that help people understand how the farm works, but also how to start their own garden. The organization offers tons of volunteer or internship opportunities which get people off the street, interested and involved in producing their food. Growing Power also leads workshops and many other educational programs to connect with youth and adults of the community. Through their market baskets, which include produce from their farm and a cooperative of other small family farms, Growing Power offers healthy and extremely affordable produce to low-income families who would otherwise be eating highly processed and unhealthy food. Growing Power formed the Rainbow Farmers Cooperative to support these small farms, offering them a steady market for their produce as well as training and help with grants, transportation, and publicity. The organization also donates compost, seed, and other products which help to get these farms started and sustained.
In Milwaukee and now with a side project in Chicago, Growing Power helps connect sustainably grown, healthy food with community-members. But even outside these two cities, the organization’s ideas and influence spread through the Rainbow Farmers Cooperative and anyone who is inspired by their accomplishments and their story. If you are interested in learning more, check out Will Allen’s book, The Good Food Revolution, which I’ve just started.