Seeds of Power
By Jennifer Vandenplas
Settled amid rows of urban housing and apartment buildings on
a busy thoroughfare of Milwaukee's north side is the Growing Power
Community Food Center. What at first glance appears to be a modest
roadside produce market and aging greenhouse - the last of its
kind, standing in an area that was once the thriving agricultural
center of the city known as Greenhouse Alley - is a pioneer meeting
place and educational facility, committed not only to growing food
but also to growing communities.
Nine years ago, Will Allen, a local
farmer and co-director of Growing Power, Inc., tapped into a movement
that was emerging from beneath the shadows of waxy apple towers
and pallid wilted greens of mega-markets across the nation. However,
the vision of providing a community-based education center was
never a part of his original plan. "I bought this place for
my own selfish reasons, to sell my farm produce," he explains.
His main desire was to expose his family to the pride and integrity
he associated with farming, as he had experienced it first-hand
as a child growing up in rural Maryland.
But in the face of agribusiness
bent toward monopolization of food production and distribution,
the need to shift the paradigm back to sustainable local agriculture
was clear. In 1995, Growing Power opened its doors to the people
of Milwaukee and neighboring rural communities, to educate them
in ways to work together to bring locally grown foods back to their
Growing Power offers public onsite training in sustainable
agriculture systems, including aquaponics, nutrient cycling systems,
livestock care, and a biological worm growing system. "We
will have a college professor standing next to a farmer standing
next to a 10-year-old youth learning to do the same thing, because
you're all at the same level when it comes to hands-on [work].
This diversity that we create is very important to me and this
work that we do."
Making the Connection
Three years ago, University of Milwaukee instructor Amy Callahan
strolled down the aisle of a neighborhood grocery store, her baby
Joe on her hip, picking up ingredients to complete the family's
menu for the week. Checking the expiration date on a carton of
cage-free eggs, her eyed lingered a moment over the block-font
letters identifying the eggs' city of origin: New Jersey. "How
long did it take for them to get here, and who handled them along
the way?" she wondered.
Nearly 40 years ago, amid similar
concerns over the increase in imported foods, the consistent loss
of farmland to development, and the migration of farmers to the
cities, a group of homemakers in Kobe, Japan, approached a local
farmer with a request to provide fresh, organically grown produce
to the families in their village. In exchange for the farmer's
commitment to the community, they were provided with advance "subscription" funds,
to assist with the purchase of the materials required in order
to plant the season's first crops.
The movement of Community Supported
Agriculture (CSA) made its way to the United States in 1985 and
has been steadily developing in a variety of approaches across
the country. A CSA farm may exclusively or collectively offer garden
produce, eggs and dairy, meats and poultry, honey or flowers. The
land may be managed by cooperative of workers, a single family
or, as in the case of Laura Jean Comerford, an individual.
is the sole proprietor of Backyard Bounty, located in Plymouth,
Wisconsin, about an hour outside of the city of Milwaukee. Growing
Power works with farmers like Comerford through its contributions
toward the organization of The Rainbow Farmers Cooperative, a group
of nearly 100 local farmers dedicated to keeping small family farms
from being eradicated by increasing production costs, growing inaccessibility
to credit resources, and the increasing competition from mega-farms
and mono-agriculture. This collective CSA approach connects rural farmers and
city residents without the intense and direct need to market individually and
offers the community a wide range of products from several specialty growers.
this year, a group of city residents volunteered to help Comerford
erect a greenhouse so that she would be able to extend her growing season into
the cold winter months. The benefit of the work of a few individuals on a single
afternoon will resound with each year's supplemental yield of vegetables that
escape the season-ending frost.
Community Supported Agriculture helps to strengthen
local economies by keeping food dollars within a community; producers
and consumers are directly linked, allowing people to have a personal
connection with their food and the land on which it was produced.
Community members commit to a particular farm in the late winter
and early spring by purchasing an advance share of the produce
the farmer intends to grow. A commitment to working a set number
of hours on the farm is often accepted in lieu of cash payment.
In return, shareholders are rewarded with weekly deliveries of
organic, responsibly grown foods freshly picked that morning. The
first delivery of fresh strawberries, rhubarb, peas, and herbs
arrive in early June and continue through the first frosts in autumn.
Callahan and her family now enjoy weekly deliveries of fresh produce
and eggs from a family farm just outside of the city. "I like
the idea of having one person, or a family, or a cooperative -
an extended family, if you will - handling the produce. They put
it in the ground, they take it out, it goes in the box, and it
comes to me. That's very appealing."
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