Last Saturday, as many slept, my husband and I awoke at the break of dawn. Along with Amy Davidson, we were preparing for a trip into Hofstra University to attend the Long Island Small Farm Summit, through the generous support of Cornell Cooperative Extension. This year’s keynote speaker was Will Allen, the CEO and founder of Growing Power, Inc., a working farm in the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We arrived early to register and were able to get excellent seats in the auditorium. We were not disappointed. Will Allen’s presentation included over 1,000 slides yet at no point did I feel the need to yawn, glance at my watch, or mentally make a shopping list for the next day. Those around me must have agreed because at the conclusion of his talk, Mr. Allen received a standing ovation. Let me repeat: A farmer got a standing ovation.
To be fair, Will Allen is far different from any farmer I had previously encountered or read about. His focus lies not solely on the production, maintenance and distribution of food, though he does that, too. Mr. Allen is the leader of what he calls, “The Good Food Revolution.” His operations in urban areas of Wisconsin and Illinois make soil, teach children and adults, grow a dizzying array of food, practice aquaponics, raise animals, foster and train other aspiring farmers, work with the juvenile justice system, divert waste from landfills, employ renewable energy, create art, and fight crime. No really, they do all of this, including lowering crime rates in one of the nation’s most notorious housing projects with flowers.
In 1993, Mr. Allen was working at Procter and Gamble, having already had a professional basketball career. While driving through Milwaukee, he saw an open lot and jotted down the number on the "For Sale" sign. And that’s how it all began. Nearly 20 years later, he is working with First Lady Michelle Obama and her “Let’s Move” initiative, and is the recipient of many awards including the MacArthur “genius grant” for his efforts in promoting sustainable food systems, the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award, the NCAA Theodore Roosevelt Award, and was recognized in 2011 as one of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.
When Growing Power, Inc. began, Mr. Allen told us, his first project was growing and planting decorative plants and flowers; a simple, kind gesture that brought beauty to a blighted neighborhood. His group planted along the curbs of housing projects and on garbage strewn corners. They hoped to instill a sense of pride in the residents and inadvertently, the crime rate began to fall. It turns out that it’s harder to steal a car and not get caught when people are looking at the lovely plantings decorating the curb next to these cars. It also seems that drug dealers shy away from corners where bright and cheerful flower petals draw the eyes of passersby.
One of the biggest challenges Mr. Allen faced in deciding to farm in the cities of the mid-west was the high lead content in the soil. He would not start the plants that would feed and employ people, in toxic dirt. That required the creation of new soil and Growing Power, Inc. did this through the collection of clean food waste that is composted into beautiful humus, with a little help from some friends, the red worms. The completed compost is then placed onto any surface-asphalt, dirt, concrete, etc.-in a two foot thickness. Most roots will not go beyond the 24 inch depth and grow heartily in this strong and vibrant earth. But honestly, even with gorgeous compost, dedicated volunteers, and excellent plant selection, how long can one really grow food in Milwaukee? The temperatures in winter have been known to be -50 degrees fahrenheit with the wind chill. An obvious problem that Mr. Allen solved with an obvious solution: build hoop houses. And build hoop houses he did, and is still doing, in urban, suburban and rural areas all over the world.
With this base, Growing Power, Inc. has started the revolution. Mr. Allen is using his knowledge and expertise to train people around the world in building sustainable food systems, no matter what the climate, the soil conditions, or the economic barriers. He believes in every person’s right to fresh, healthy, food and empowers them to create this food in their yards, neighborhoods, and cities. Seeing Mr. Allen in front of me, it was apparent that he’s just a man, with a new hip and a knee brace. But listening to him speak elevated him to idolic status. He renewed my determination to bring people to their food and to be a soldier in this Good Food Revolution.
For more information on Will Allen and Growing Power, Inc., please visit www.growingpower.org and check out the book The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities by Will Allen.
Oh, and in my last blog, I mentioned a recipe for rhubarb lemonade. I was able to try my hand at it for Easter brunch and it was a smashing success.
Rhubarb Lemonade Concentrate
3 ½ cups water
8 cups chopped rhubarb
3 ½ cups sugar
4 tbsp. lemon zest
1 ½ cups lemon juice
Combine first 4 ingredients and bring to a medium boil in a saucepan. Adjust heat to low and let simmer. Stir until sugar is fully dissolved and rhubarb falls apart. Remove from heat and add lemon juice. Strain the liquid and let cool. Use one part syrup to 3 parts water, served over lots of ice. This concentrate will keep for up to 3 weeks in the refrigerator.