We had the pleasure of touring Will Allen’s Growing Power facility in Milwaukee a couple of weeks ago.
Before I start, can we just take a moment to appreciate the enormity of this pile of compost? Oh, what a thing of beauty, towering over us, smelling sweet and earthy. If you twisted my arm and had me choose my favorite part of the tour, it would be hard to narrow down to just one thing, but this sky-scraping compost would definitely be in the running.
Do you know about Growing Power? (if so, meditate on this compost while I bring everyone else up to speed)
You might know that Will Allen was a basketball player? More importantly, he was the son of farmers, sharecroppers. After leaving basketball, he settled with his wife on her turf, just outside of Milwaukee. He took a job as a working stiff, which put him on the road driving past this vacant property stacked with greenhouses, day after day. As the tour guide tells it, it was the proximity to the city’s largest low-income housing project combined with the lack of a grocery store within any reasonable distance, combined with his own farming roots that fueled the initiative to start providing good, fresh, clean food to the people in his neighborhood. He purchased the property, the last city tract to bear Agricultural zoning, and soon opened up a farm stand for the folks in his new neighborhood. The facility has since become a paradigm for urban agriculture, putting into practice revolutionary models for growing clean, nutritious, real food anywhere, everywhere.
The very morning after the last day of school found the kids and I packed into the car for a short road trip to Milwaukee, where we were to meet my mom and grandma. It was cool and grey that day, and we tried to blow off some pent-up travel energy at the playground with the little bit of time we had before the tour started. Cold and wet and approaching naptime, I braced myself for the worst – being stuck in a guided tour with two cold, wet, cranky kids. Minutes before the tour started, we joined up with Mom and Grandma and from that moment on, the energy shifted to a more positive note.
There was so much to see. The first part of the tour featured the insightful aquaponics system that is setting a new standard in agriculture. Water + fish (tilapia) swimming about inside a greenhouse = our full attention. We were going to be fine, I quickly realized – the fast pace of the tour was nicely fitted to the fast-paced nature of those little attention spans. Next we got to pass around a container of velvety soft compost. You had us at water and fish, Mr. Allen, but digging our hands into a bucket of dirt (good dirt!) sealed the deal. Next were the worms. You may not know it, but we have worms too – a mostly forgotten colony of red wigglers cheerfully composting small amounts of kitchen waste in our basement. Somehow this didn’t diminish the excitement of seeing vast bins of worms hard at work. We lifted the damp burlap covering the bins and gently poked around till we could spot them.
So to this point, we’d seen fish in water, played with dirt, and played hide & seek with worms. Heading outside, we were greeted by the massive pile of compost and the Alpine dairy goats. Can you see how this is going, how each of us was nearly floating on a euphoric cloud? Watching The Boy commune in his intuitive way with the goats – I could watch him interact with animals all day long – witnessing The Girl pluck broken leaves off the greenhouse floor and discovering Arugula!, watching how engrossed they both were in the laying flock of chickens…
…it was such an affirmation for me. That they were so excited to see the chickens was a shock. There’s no shortage of hens at home and I’d thought this would diminish the excitement of seeing them on the tour, but in fact I think it helped them to relate to the farm more personally. Same with the worms, the bees, the seedlings, and the compost. Not one of us was bored or anything less than excited about any of these things, despite them being familiar and part of our own everyday. I was so struck by this, so wholly surprised. The more I think about it now, the more I begin to wonder if our pure, visceral enjoyment that day came from the connection we felt as budding farmers to the bigger community before us. A kinship, I think, to the farm that shared so many of our own closely-held ideals.
Wow. I had expected to be mildly inspired. Expected to learn some new things, hoped the kids wouldn’t implode. Hoped to spend some nice time with Mom and Grandma in a mutually-interesting setting. What I got instead, what we all got, blew these tepid expectations right out of the water–right out of the giant rainwater catchment tank that housed hungry bluegills and perch fingerlings.