Will Allen Visits Peaceful Grounds

It was an honor to meet Growing Power founder Will Allen last weekend. The urban farming advocate was in town to support the work of his student Linda Proffitt at Peaceful Grounds. (Here’s my earlier post about this inspiring demonstration farm, which is a regional training center for Growing Power.)

This aphorism hangs on the wall at Peaceful Grounds.

This aphorism hangs on the wall at Peaceful Grounds.

The former pro basketball player told me that he learned how to broadcast seed as a child. He can pick up a handful of seed and not drop one of them. He has the muscle memory for broadcasting those seeds, whether arugula or chard or carrots—and all require different release rates. His sharecropper father taught him as a child, and all these years later, he retains the skill.

Now he sows great swaths of salad greens in his Milwaukee farm operations. Calling himself a “crusty old farmer,” he is the embodiment of Growing Power’s stated vision: “to inspire communities to build sustainable food systems that are equitable and ecologically sound, creating a just world, one food-secure community at a time.”

In 25 urban farm sites, on places like brownfields, school property, and land leased from corporations, the organization models how to get this done. The food is distributed through multiple channels, from Community Supported Agriculture accounts to a major distributor, Sysco. “Just another customer” is how he describes the corporation that ships GPI wares all over southeast Wisconsin.

Though the local food movement continues to make strides, there’s still a long way to go. Despite all the options—the CSAs, the farm stands, the farmers markets, the small mom and pop stores stocking local fare—Allen says up to 99 percent of the food eaten in major cities comes from 1500 miles away. “The vast majority of people will shop square,” he says, referring to big box stores.

Only $13 million of the U.S. food sector is generated by eco-agriculture—about the equivalent of three McDonalds. Growing Power represents 20 percent of that share. To fully transform the food system would require 50 million people to start growing food in their own yards, he says.

Turning the ship around has been the iconic Allen’s life work for the past 21 years.

Basil sprouts at Peaceful Grounds, a regional training center for Will Allen's organization, Growing Power.

Basil sprouts at Peaceful Grounds, a regional training center for Will Allen’s organization, Growing Power.

He envisions for-profit businesses taking up the charge of urban food security, with nonprofits assuming a training and organizing role.

In his own organization, the people responsible for growing the food are extremely efficient, and training happens as a separate program. That’s a critical point, because farming isn’t easy. Efficiency is the name of the game.

“My crew comes from the community, and they live in the community, but they are professionals. Everybody thinks you can take interns and integrate them with professionals, but you can’t. You’ll lose money hand over fist.”

He's very tall.

That’s me on the right.

More of my conversation with Will Allen can be found in today’s Nuvo article.

Also check out Robb Smith’s terrific podcast interview over at DIY Food Supply.

Peaceful Grounds

Monday morning a group of gardeners from the neighborhood had a private tour of Peaceful Grounds, Linda Proffitt’s endeavor at Marion County Fairgrounds, where the county fair is going on. (See my earlier post about her work here.) The vision and scope of this Global Peace Initiatives project astounded and inspired us.

The cattle barn at the Marion County fairgrounds is home to this volunteer-driven initiative.

The cattle barn at the Marion County fairgrounds is home to this volunteer-driven initiative.

George Marshall, Linda’s intern, showed us around the farm, where mounds of wood chips are not just regular old wood chips but worm habitat.

George

George next to a hoop house that stayed warm all winter from heat given off by decomposition.

Peaceful Grounds takes beer mash from local brewers like Irvington’s own Black Acre and buries it in mulch to feed the herd of worms.

The spent grain is perfect worm food because barley fits easily into worms' tiny mouths.

The spent grain is perfect worm food because barley fits easily into worms’ tiny mouths.

Hand-painted signs that say “Worms at Work” and “Thank a Worm” testify to the importance of these little red wigglers.

IMG_3617

Digging up some of the underground workers to show us.

Volunteers mix 5 to 15 tons of mash with equal amounts of wood chips each week. Another mound incorporates dehydrated food waste from public hospital Eskenazi Health. Over time, these piles and rows are transformed into a viable medium for garden plants.

George showed us where vegetable and herb starts have been set right into these habitats.

broccoli

Broccoli planted in one of many windrows made by worms doing their work on wood chips and beer mash.

In a nifty closing of the loop, Linda has begun to raise hops to supply local brewers.

A few of Peaceful Grounds volunteer-planted crops.

A few more Peaceful Grounds volunteer-planted crops.

While we were walking down the raised beds (“windrows”) of basil and tomatoes, a fair official came up and asked for Linda. He wanted to introduce her to the people in charge of an elephant exhibit, so she could incorporate elephant dung in the farm operation. (“You never met a lady more excited about poop than Linda,” George joked.)

Inside the cattle barn is where kids and adults can come for hands-on fun with art and agriculture. It’s also where artists like Jamie Locke (another Irvington neighbor) demonstrate mandala making and other crafts—and where young volunteers from Handi-Capable Hands take charge of a gigantic tumbler that sifts the worm compost into two grades of product.

Heidi Unger took this photo of the tumbler, which is named Apollo and was donated by a local farmer who saw Linda on TV.

Heidi Unger took this photo of the tumbler, which is named Apollo and was donated by a local farmer who saw Linda on TV.

We went home with the finer grade, which is basically worm poo, to use as a powerful organic fertilizer. One tablespoon per plant will nourish it through a month, Linda says.

Worm castings make an excellent fertilizer. Now there's a local source!

Worm castings make an excellent fertilizer. Now we have a local source!

Before we left, we learned that Will Allen is going to visit the operation, which is a training outpost for his fabulous Growing Power organization. He will speak at 2pm Saturday and lead a workshop at 4pm, and will also preside over a ribbon cutting ceremony at noon on Sunday, when the Peaceful Grounds Farm and Arts Market kicks off.

IMG_3598I’d love to see more interaction between local urban gardeners and this facility, which is just a stone’s throw from Irvington’s back door. Right now the county fair is in full swing, but the possibilities extend beyond its closing date. Linda is running a Farm Camp for kids starting July 7, and is happy to host volunteers at any time.

By the way, she offered to set me up with an interview with Will Allen. I’m thrilled to meet this man I admire so much. I’m crowdsourcing interview questions. What would you ask the grandfather of urban gardening, if you could?