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Milwaukee's urban farmer

One man’s vision: to bring sustainable agriculture to inner cities.

(Page 2 of 2)

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Great Lakes WATER Institute consults with Allen’s aquaculture (fish farming) operation, which raises 10,000 yellow perch and tilapia a year on its urban farms. Allen’s system costs $3,000 to build, as opposed to a $50,000 conventional system.

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“You need an engineering degree to operate one of these [conventional] systems. I can teach you our system in a five-hour workshop,” says Allen, who also consults Madison’s microbiology department. “Our object is to make it as simple as possible.”

Urban farming has its challenges, and the key to its success is the soil, especially when the land may be contaminated from past uses, he says. “Without good soil, crops don’t get enough of the nutrients they need to survive. When plants are stressed, they are more prone to disease and pest problems.”

To achieve an organic label for its produce, Growing Power makes 6 million tons  pounds of compost for its soil each year from the collected food wastes of grocery stores, wholesale produce companies, and moldy hay.

But the success of Growing Power relies on more than just rich soil. Its programs are a shining example of “sustainability,” a key buzzword in the local-food movement.

In addition to providing local alternatives to processed food found at corner stores, its viable urban farms create jobs, develop small businesses, and keep precious dollars in the community, says Jerry Kaufman, a professor emeritus of urban planning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Growing new farmers
Allen hopes to recruit and nurture a new class of farmers from among the young people he meets through Growing Power’s presentations, demonstrations, workshops, and weekend seminars. He strives to show them that small farm operations are not only doable but essential in promoting sustainable agriculture.

“They’re the ones to take this forward,” he says.

Allen’s passion for agriculture springs from his childhood on a farm in Maryland where he and his brothers cultivated their own garden. Although they were never wealthy, Allen recalls the many times his mother kept a stirred pot on the stove in order to be ready to feed dozens of family, friends, and neighbors.

He never expected that he’d return to farming in his adult life, but Allen discovered during his professional basketball days in Europe that he just couldn’t resist the pull to dig around in the soil.

His daughter, Erika Allen, continues the family tradition by serving as director of Growing Power’s Chicago projects.

In September Allen was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant” of $500,000, which is given to individuals described as “creative, bold, energetic and promising of more achievement.”

Allen plans to use his grant money to continue providing fresh produce to the poor while he searches for new and creative ways of improving the health and diet of inner-city communities.

(NOTE: To go to the Monitor's main gardening page -- which contains articles and blog posts on many topics -- click here.)