Tag Archives: small-scale agriculture

Growing Power

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.

Here is the Growing Power website and two short videos about the organization: websitevideo #1,  video #2,

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.


Is Local Food Really the Best Choice?

I’ve been working on this post for a while. I hope it has some new information and thoughts. I have a lot to say and the post is pretty long, but there are still things I couldn’t fit in. So ask about something if you’re looking for more. Also, I still have a lot to learn about food, so I may be leaving things out and saying things that aren’t supported by a lot of information. A lot of this is just thought.

It’s easy to think a product that’s grown 50 miles from me in my own state automatically makes more sense than something grown a few thousand miles away in a different country, or even continent. However, there are people who would disagree with me and they present many valid and powerful counter-arguments. Here is an example of some of these ideas presented in two articles. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/09/12got_cheap_milk / Local food is mentioned only briefly here. There are really insightful comments if you scroll down and be sure not to miss the second page of the article. http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/11/14/the-inefficiency-of-local-food/ and a video to go along with it http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xqcfip_freakonomics-does-eating-local-hurt-the-environment_lifestyle I’ll try to summarize what I think are the key arguments in these articles and present my thoughts.

Certain foods grown best in only a few places. If everyone tries to grow these “locally,” there are a lot of unnecessary inputs and energy that wouldn’t be needed if they were grown in climates where they naturally fit. The example of eating local lamb in England shows that just because something is from closer to home, does not mean that it’s better for the environment or more sustainable. I don’t think any of us want to support something that’s sucking up extra energy, even if it is local. Here in California we are lucky to have a temperate climate that supports a huge range of crops. While at Chewonki, I heard of someone growing tomatoes hydroponically (in water, without soil) in a greenhouse in the middle of a Maine winter. That product is local, but it may be using more water and energy than I want to support. This is where knowing the plants which grow well in your region and season is important.

The second article reveals some economic inefficiencies of a localized food system. It points out some economic weaknesses of localized agriculture to go along with the idea that certain plants grow best in certain places, each area specializing in a number of crops. I think this part of the article over-simplifies things. There can still be specialization to some extent. I am willing to support something that comes from a little farther, maybe a few hundred miles, if I know it is grown well. I just think small-scale, shorter distance trade makes sense here. This is still a valid point and a weakness in hard-lined locavorism.The article points out that a change to a localized food system would not only damage trade, but  would also require more inputs and more land. That the change would be expensive and drastic is indisputable, but what if the new localized crops are replacing large, conventional farms? And the idea that a localized food system would use more pesticides doesn’t apply if the food is grown unconventionally and without chemical inputs. Obviously, I can’t discount the entire study cited in this article and I believe that it is valid research. It points out another hole in the local food argument. But I also believe there are a variety of different farming techniques that could help smooth the land-use change. 

Localized, small-scale farms could also be seen as less efficient than larger scale operations. But the pollution of these farms  is nothing compared to larger ones. This can’t be ignored because pollution actually makes these farms less economically efficient if we look at natural capital (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_capital). In other words, are large farms really more efficient if they are causing long term damage to the land and environment that will cost a lot of money in the long run? If we think about the future, small farms are more economically sensible and sustainable in their impacts on the environment. In my mind, a large and concentrated food system isn’t the answer, and I am okay with stopping those trends mentioned in the article if it means each community is more self-sustaining.

However, it’s still true that small-scale, localized farming is probably using more inputs per output, making the healthiest foods more expensive. But as the first article mentions, organic farms can be as or more efficient as larger conventional ones. The trick is getting all of the farming methods down so that we can get to that peak efficiency. In a book I’m reading called Green Gone Wrong (which will definitely appear in a later post), a farmer talks about growing foods by trial and error and discovering things he never would have known by just trying things out. Through trial and error, small-scale localized farming can become super efficient and adopted well in each area according to that area’s climate. Maybe it doesn’t make sense for someone in Maine to be growing oranges so they’ll have to get them from Florida. We can keep orange prices steady  by not forcing them into environments where they won’t do well or will require more inputs. As for decreasing prices in grain and unhealthy products like corn syrup, I think localized agriculture can actually help solve this. If each region sticks a little bit more to specialty crops so that corn and soy aren’t being grown absolutely everywhere, we can have a more proportional food production of fruits, veggies, and grains. Besides, grains are a filling dietary need and are a great option for poorer people if corn and wheat stay cheap. It’s not bad to have something cheap and grown across different regions as long as it doesn’t get ridiculous. I’m talking about a point when we have to find products to put the crop into in order to keep prices from going down as supply skyrockets (e.g. corn).

In response to the end of the second article and borrowing from a comment on the first one, people in developed countries eating locally grown food is not the reason that people in developing countries don’t have food. Often, these people used to grow a variety of subsistence crops from which they could feed their family. But a demand for a cash crop like rice (as is true with India) may have forced these farmers to switch to growing a single product. If we support these products, then we are in fact contributing to a lifestyle that is hurting the world’s poor. So, it seems that the answer would necessitate these farmers going back to the range of crops they have traditionally grown to achieve true self-sufficiency, needing only themselves or their neighbors for food. This is in fact localized agriculture. But how can we support this type of a food system in another country? This is a very complicated question that I’ll attempt to answer in another post (not that it has a definite answer).

In the end, it’s not like I can create a “big picture” from all this information, though I always wish I could give a simple rule. I guess it’s just important to note that eating local is not a cure-all. There are lots of complications involved with the kinds of farms we want to support and I think the importance of the second article is to think about the future of our food system. Complete localism throughout the country certainly seems idealistic and possibly very harmful to the economy. But I think a balance of localized and some larger scale agriculture could possibly work out.

In the independent research project I did for my Environmental Issues class, I talk about how it may be important and necessary to support products that are grown very far away from us. I’ll talk about this in a later post.


This past week in my Environmental Issues class, we discussed and debated about GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The majority of GMO crops today are commodity crops such as corn and soy. A very large majority of these crops grown today, I think 80%, are genetically modified.

Currently used GMOs include Bt corn and Roundup Ready soy. Bt corn was created by transplanting genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) which lives in the soil and creates a toxin that can kill corn borers, a common pest for corn plants. The genes which code for the formation of this toxin were implanted into the corn to create a plant that essentially grows its own pesticide. Roundup Ready soy has been modified to resist the broad-spectrum herbicide Roundup. This means that farmers with Roundup Ready crops (the gene has been used in many other plants like cotton and sugarbeets) can spray tons of Roundup on their crops and kill everything green but their soy. Higher yield and drought-tolerant plants provide a potential for increased productivity with less resources and energy needed, however the predominance of Roundup Ready crops means that even more pesticides are being sprayed on crops nowadays with the appearance of GMOs.

There are many pros and cons of growing GMOs and for a while it was hard for me to decide if I agreed with the implementation of GMOs in our food system. It is largely a theoretical issue because the technology has only been around for a few decades and there are many long-term still to be seen. Also, there are many potential benefits and ideas for crops that have yet to be fully developed.

After a lot of thought, I have come to disagree with the idea of having GMOs in our food sources. I am not against the idea of genetically modifying organisms and I can definitely see the potential. Modifying plants to be more heat-tolerant, drought-tolerant, salt-tolerant can help us to produce food for a growing world. These plants even offer a possibility for those in poor and developing countries to get a steady source of income. They have the ability to survive many conditions and even restore damaged land. Many crops can give higher yield and productivity, another plus for those using agriculture to start developing a community and searching for economic stability.

The reason I object to GMOs is the way that they are currently integrated into agriculture. A court case decided that it is now legal to patent a certain set of genes, known as the “patent on life.” This decision means that a seed producing company like Monsanto can own a certain genetically modified crop seed and sue anyone found with that seed who didn’t pay for it. The monopolization is harmful to a small farmer’s way of life as Monsanto will often sue anyone who has had GM seeds blow onto their property and accidentally saved them. This also means no saving seeds if they are genetically modified, because Monsanto owns the seed and reproduction of the seed would be infringing on their patent. This is one of the issues I take with GMOs. The concept of buying new seed does not allow for the kind of sustainable cycle necessary for a farmer to be in harmony with nature.

Thinking back to the TED talk I shared earlier about fish, I think that the most sustainable and productive farms are the ones who work with the systems of nature, not against them. The idea of GM crops is scary because it may lead to a future of low biodiversity, potential pesticide resistance as well as a high possibility of contamination of the environment with super-seeds which could take over. If we want a truly reliable future for our food system, the best possibilities lie in farms like the fish farm in Spain from the TED talk (here), which don’t interfere with nature. GMOs may be cheaper economically given their higher yield, but they are not cheaper in the resources they use or the farms they put out of business.

Even the promise of helping developing economies is tainted by the monopolization of GMOs. When Monsanto helps communities by giving them seed to buy, they are often in it for the money and may end up exploiting the community. The adoption of GM crops can result in an Americanization and loss of culture for these countries. Many countries have cultural ties to the very crops they grow and won’t want to adopt new ones.

GMOs have promise outside of our food, though. Certain plants have been genetically modified to be able to absorb toxic substances such as TNT and convert them into less toxic ones, known as phytoremediation. I think that these plants  can no doubt help with clean up after wars or chemical spills, but the patent on life has no place in our food system. It harms small farms and grows monopolies. GMOs as they are currently implemented cause the use of more pesticides and breed the kind of farming that is low in economic cost, but high in environmental cost.

Though GM crops allow us to plant more in new places, I don’t think this is the answer to food shortages and I don’t think it is breeds a sustainable way of farming. GMOs as they are currently produced expand the kind of industrial agriculture that will cause problems with energy and resources, not solve them. I think it is impossible to integrate GMOs into the kind of independent, low-impact farms which will help get everyone food without damaging the environment.