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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 tables.

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.

Comerford 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.

Earlier 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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