My recent articles have been heavily oriented towards living the Law of One in the most fundamental of ways – growing the food our bodies need to thrive with love, respect and appreciation, in good soil and with an awareness that we are one with our environment. Or, alternatively, purchasing such food from our local community’s organic farmers.
From my series of articles on Penny Kelly’s wonderful book, From the Soil to the Stomach to Difference Maker articles on Susumu Hashimoto, Mokichi Okada, Machaelle Small Wright and Fritz Haeg, my hope has been to wake you up from the urban nightmare of industrial farming and the zero-nutrient items that they try to pass off as food – too often with success – in our supermarkets, and to bring you into an awareness of the wonderful things that are happening today on small organic farms and in urban community, lawn and roof gardens.
It is happening everywhere! There are waiting lists for every community farm! More and more public housing lots and vacant lots are being reclaimed by urban food activists.
I read in our local paper last Sunday of Will Allen. He was in town to share his concepts at a local workshop called Idea Festival. And he was talking about a “good food revolution”. That caught my ear and I began digging further. It is my pleasure to share with you Allen’s story.
Born in 1949 to a man who was the oldest son in a sharecropping family of 13 children in South Carolina, Allen began to learn how to grow things as soon as he could walk around his family’s farming plot. He loved the lifestyle and wanted it for his own children. He learned about composting while he was playing ball in the Belgian Basketball League. When he retired from his career as a basketball player in 1977, when he was 28, the 6’ 7“ African-American decided to buy the last farm – two whole acres of ruined land and wrecks of outbuildings - that existed within the city limits of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
At first he had a day job in management and sales at places like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Proctor and Gamble while he created a real, working greenhouse farm at home in his spare time. But his natural gifts for creating good relationships with people, his exuberant love of farming and his natural salesmanship soon changed all that.
When a youth group at his church became interested in what he did, they volunteered to create more gardens in the land behind his greenhouse. One thing led to another! And another, and another! Now Allen is CEO of Growing Power, a non-profit organization which runs 14 greenhouses, all with three levels of growing trays, on the mere two acres of his urban farm. In addition to his employees, he has hundreds of volunteers who share the work while learning his techniques. “We’re growing in 25,000 pots,” he says. Out back of the greenhouses he also grows chickens, ducks, turkeys, goats and beehives.
Good, living soil is something an urban gardener needs to be able to create. He cannot go out to the back forty and dig it. He has to make it or buy it. Most gardeners use peat moss to create good soil, but that is expensive stuff, and it is not sustainable. A stand of peat moss takes thousands of years to develop, and a few minutes to harvest.
Allen has developed a sustainable plan for creating good, living soil. Half of his soil comes from ground coconut shells. He buys them by the shipping container as waste and grinds them himself, then sieves the ground coir to produce a cheap, sustainable substitute for peat moss.
The other half of his soil comes from compost to which he introduces lots of worms, twenty pounds of them for a container of compost. As the worms chew through the compost, they leave behind castings. After two months of the worms’ tender attentions, the compost is used up. Allen’s method removes the worms from the castings by giving them another batch of good eating. The worms leave the castings, the castings are sieved and added to the sifted coir, and voila! You have excellent living soil, with all its enzymes and critters.
Another sustainable feature of his farm comes from his fish tanks. He runs the tank water from the fish farm through his greenhouse pots. The plants love the fish refuse and in using it, they completely sanitize it. And Allen has used the water twice.
This feature caught the eye of Kevin Fitzsimmons, a professor at the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who said about it, “Aquaponics and greenhouse vegetable production appear to be the best model for intensifying agriculture with minimal impact on the environment.” What Allen has done, Fitzsimmons says, is prove it’s do-able. “Will Allen has demonstrated the practicality and educational potential of these systems.”
As a coup de grace of sustainable farming, Allen’s livestock’s waste is processed on site to provide methane fuel to run the greenhouse power. His dream is to get completely off the grid and use no outside power at all for his operation.
Growing Power now has six facilities in Milwaukee and Chicago, and has opened eight regional training centers, from Mississippi to Massachusetts. Some 35 staffers are juggling more than 70 short- and long-term programs around the world.
In his home area, he has organized an organization called The Farm-City Market Basket program. Run through the Logan Square Neighborhood Association in Chicago, Illinois, the program provides twelve to fourteen different kinds of produce in amounts that will feed a family of four for a week. For $17.00, residents can buy a twenty-pound basket of assorted organic vegetables. For $28.00, they can purchase a similar basket containing the vegetables, plus fruits and herbs for a week’s good eating. He also sells the meat from his chicken farm and dairy products, all created organically.
Allen has spun off an organization from Growing Power called the Rainbow Farmers’ Cooperative. He and his staff have created a sustainable business model that shows families how to keep their family farms running, or how to start an urban farm, at a profit. This cooperative now includes hundreds of small-scale farmers. In addition to supporting these farmers by purchasing the farmers’ goods, paying the transportation costs from the farm to RFC’s warehouse in Milwaukee, giving them access to farmer’s markets, restaurants and small-scale wholesalers and creating cooler storage space to provide quality control for the foods warehoused, RFC also trains farmers in various methods of sustainable farming.
RFC offers workshops on sustainable compost production, vermicomposting, animal husbandry, bee farming and honey production, hydroponic fish production, post-harvest handling techniques and assistance with grant writing.
The goals of Growing Power start with growing good, organic, high-nutrient food. Allen says,“ “We need 50 million more people growing food on porches, in pots, in side yards.” The reasons are simple: as oil prices rise, cities expand and housing developments replace farmland, the ability to grow more food in less space becomes ever more important. As Allen reminds us, “Chicago has 77,000 vacant lots.”
He feels that the poorest of our citizens have the least access to good food, and he wants to change that. He says, “From a housing project, a grocery can be miles away. That’s a long way to go for groceries if you don’t have a car or can’t carry stuff. And the quality of the produce can be poor. Fast-food joints and convenience stores selling highly processed, high-calorie foods, on the other hand, are locally abundant. It’s a form of redlining. We’ve got to change the system so everyone has safe, equitable access to healthy food.”
However, his goals extend to growing new urban farmers and growing power itself. He has been wrapping both the urban poor and grant-giving organizations in his charisma for years now. He says, “African-Americans need help, and they’re often harder to work with because they’ve been abused and so forth. But I can break through a lot of that very quickly because a lot of people of color are so proud, so happy to see me leading this kind of movement.” He now employs three dozen people at his greenhouses and trains thousands of volunteers and workshop attendees each year.
In the Courier-Journal article mentioned above, Allen said, “I believe this is a future green industry of work that will be happening. We’ve got to prepare the kids for that. People are coming here and saying, ‘I can do that. I want to do that.’ I think that’s the thing we can do best. We inspire people.”
One example of how he empowers people is this: he was cutting sprouts in the dark one night and realized that one does not have to see to do the work. So he has talked blind people into growing sprouts. It is one kind of farming they can do as well as anyone. And it translates into healthy, inexpensive food for them.
This points up what I think is Allen’s most spiritually helpful gift: he loves to create groups who are empowered to change things. He loves to turn urban kids into farmers. He loves to reach out and help, and his knack for creating relationships means that he has now motivated thousands of people to take up urban farming, and each one of them is creating highly nutritious food for their families and neighbors, at the very least and, at the most, taking up the business of organic farming and being self-supporting.
In a September 4, 1994, session of channeling, the Q’uo group said,
“Truly, for those who seek to serve, the way becomes far less severe and difficult when there are companions upon that dusty path. To serve together is to serve far more ably and effectively than each one separately. This instinct towards cooperation which we see developing within your numbers—this is an art and a skill which is key in the creation of the enhanced being, offered within what is so often called the New Age.
“Fourth density is not separated from third by a great chasm, but merely by the resistance of third-density entities when faced with the need to become a part of a unified and euphonious group. Know that each of you is most valuable in your unique way; and if there is never the opportunity to function steadily with a group, yet still, the service provided by living a life of faith is infinite in value. Yet when the opportunity arises to serve the Creator as a portion of a circle or group, we encourage each to seize that chance with glee.”
I open my arms and embrace your spirit! Let’s thank Will Allen for his wonderful service! And let us offer that which is infinite in value by living a life of faith, and finding ways to collaborate together in service to the ways of love.