Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of Robert Pierce and Will Allen working with a student

Will Allen (left) of Growing Power has started urban agriculture programs to raise fresh, healthy foods, job opportunities and awareness of nutrition in the heart of downtown neighborhoods.

December 2010

Feeding an idea and a community

An urban agriculture revolution is growing.

Story, Photos and Video by Natasha Kassulke and Steve Apps

Gere Tree Care, Inc., fells trees in spring 2010 kicking off the start of building an urban garden and school on Madison's South Side. The trees will be reused on site as mulch, benches and more.

The faces of the Future Farmers of America may be city kids like 17-year-old Dane Djergou. Dane, a student at Madison's West High School, is learning to garden in a parking lot instead of on a rural farm plot. On the site of a once blighted, abandoned lot in the city, young farmers like Dane are using hand tools instead of tractors to forge fertile ground for fresh fruits and vegetables.

It's part of the "good food revolution," a term coined by Milwaukee visionary and Growing Power president Will Allen. A large and quiet man, Allen was recently named to Time magazine's annual list of the hundred "World's Most Influential" people; a distinction earned not for his former career playing professional basketball, but because this son of South Carolina sharecroppers has spawned a movement of growing food close to home, even if home is in downtown Milwaukee or a south side Madison neighborhood that hugs a busy highway.

The movement has become much more, says Robert Pierce, an advocate in developing sustainable locally grown food. Growing Power has trained urban farmers from Chicago to Kenya.

Pierce has been growing food for 30 years and practicing organic farming since 1984. He started as a vendor at the South Madison Farmers' Market in 2002 and became the market manager in 2003. He became a protégé of Allen's about 10 years ago and continues to work with P.E.A.T. (Program for Entrepreneurial and Agricultural Training) that teaches teens how to grow healthy food and run their own businesses.

"People are concerned about where their food comes from and what's in it," Pierce says. "I wanted to be involved. Will told me to go find a place and so I started looking."

Pierce's search brought him to an abandoned school building near the highway; a four-acre site next to a bowling alley at 501 E. Badger Road. It also launched a partnership at the site now known as The Resilience Center at Badger School. The vision is to build a privately-run community center that incorporates a charter middle school. The magnet school would run year-round and the property would be ringed with vegetable gardens and orchards where sixth through eighth graders would get hands-on lessons in green living, growing healthy foods and growing local businesses that can provide local jobs.

"I see so much opportunity here," Pierce says over the hum of traffic on the nearby Beltline Highway. "This is the heart of urban agriculture."

A green design to help greens and students blossom year-round

"There won't be an inch of bluegrass here," says Tom Dunbar, executive director of The Center for Resilient Cities, the community center that will house the school and manage the surrounding property. "Every square inch will be something to eat and this will become a neighborhood gathering place." A map of the future site is as ambitious as it is gastronomically appealing.

The master plan calls for a school and neighborhood building with green design powered by wind and solar energy. Vegetation that produces perennial edibles including fruit trees, nut trees and berry bushes will be planted along the property perimeter. There will be a hoop house for year-round growing. Fish will be raised here too. A building on-site (formerly used as a school, neighborhood intervention center and for storing security files) will be deconstructed and recycled.

The project is being carried out in phases.

"The county was interested in selling the four-acre parcel and asked us what we thought it should be," Dunbar says. The group submitted a proposal in August 2009 that was accepted by the county in September. In six weeks, the group raised the funding to purchase the property for $500,000 and Growing Power came on board. More recently, the local school board reviewed and accepted a proposal for a charter school on-site. The board also gave the group permission to seek a planning grant.

Joe Sensenbrenner, former Madison mayor and now chairman of the board for The Center for Resilient Cities, sees the site as "a natural invitation for people to come to plant, grow, consume, and dispose or reuse."

"This project weaves together intensive urban agriculture, a movement for healthy communities and sustainability, and food issues," he says. "This is project-based education. Energy resources are an aspect of the site and the local gas and electric utility (MGE) is a chief partner. We are looking into the highest certification standards such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design); a measure of green, sustainable buildings."

Three acres of city-owned detention ponds nearby could be integrated into the project. Sensenbrenner sees the potential for floating platform gardens modeled after those in Central America. The Center for Resilient Cities is also paying attention to lessons that can come from the site so other communities can learn from the Badger experience.

The Center is working with University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of environment and community sociology Michael Bell to study what changes people are willing to make to put local food on their table. Bell is asking what changes neighbors see where community gardens are planted. He's also looking at the true cost of local products such as carrots – including volunteer time, capital investment, water resources and energy expenses.

It all comes back to crediting the vision of that mountain of a man.

"Will Allen is a genius and has developed a very portable, affordable model – compost and worms – that cities across the country can use and benefit from," Sensenbrenner says. "He uses hoop houses (simple greenhouses) that are very inexpensive and the compost supplies heat so you can garden year-round even in places like Wisconsin. We can get a lot of productivity out of small areas and don't need many acres of permanent soil."

Starting out by falling down

On-the-ground work started in April 2010 when seven trees on the site were felled and then milled and the residues chipped. Some of the longer pieces of the trunks will be milled into boards to see new life as benches in the gardens. The pines were chipped and left for mulching blueberries. Apple wood chips are being stored for smoking fish that will be raised here.

A key component of the good food revolution is that there is no waste whether you are dealing with vegetables or trees.

Photo of worker and portable sawmill
Evergreens from the Badger School site were sawed into boards with a portable sawmill.

Sean Gere, a tree surgeon, is interested in promoting uses for the wood. Gere has worked with tree owners to see that their trees live on in many forms after they are harvested whether they are used for wood chips, lumber, turned into wooden bowls or crafted into guitars. Some wood logs can even be inoculated to grow woodland mushrooms like shiitake.

"This feels like work," Gere says to his four-man crew as they engage in a tug-of-war battle with a 43-year-old white spruce. Small limbs are dragged to the wood chipper. The trunk and larger branches are milled on-site.

Brian Keller, from Sustainable Solutions, brought a portable lumber mill to the job site to cut dimensional lumber and shingles out of urban trees.

"When a tree is cut down in the city, a lot of people don't realize that they can reuse the wood." Keller most often cuts durable species that won't rot when used outside. The boards cut today may be used for benches and fencing.

"By reusing the wood, you can give a tree another 50 to 60 years of outside life in another form," Keller says.

He can even use small, 20-inch sections from higher up the trees that most tree sales and large lumber companies will turn away. Most mills, he says, prefer the trunk to branches.

Watch a video of the tree felling and milling occurring onsite:

Bring on the compost

Just weeks after the trees were felled, truckloads of worm-friendly, weed-free compost were hauled in. The first load was made from spent beer mash provided by the Ale Asylum Brewery on Madison's northeast side along with unusable produce from a grocery store and individual vegetable scrap donations. A second load of finished compost came from Growing Power reserves in Milwaukee.

Compost is a critical component in Will Allen's lesson plan. A compost pile full of working, active bacteria turns organic residues like plant trimmings, coffee grounds and brewery mash into soil. About 80 to 90 percent of the organisms in compost are bacteria, which are responsible for most of the decomposition and generate heat as they break down organic wastes. The nutrient-rich compost is a key medium for growing the vegetables and other plants to come.

"We'd like to add some flowers and maybe bring in some bees and make it look nice," Pierce says. The gardens will be mostly traditional – tomatoes, beans and such.

"The soil is very rich," Pierce says pointing to the long windrows of compost. "These will be permanent beds and we will do a mass planting."

The "we" includes many young people.

Lydia Hynson, 19, is studying cello performance at Lawrence University in Appleton. She is one of five students who came from Lawrence to help build the beds.

"We like getting dirty," she says.

Sophie Patterson, 20, also a student at Lawrence studying Environmental Studies, says this is her first Growing Power project. She is a member of SLUGs (Sustainable Lawrence University Gardens). The SLUGs just built a hoop house on campus. They raise vegetables and sell them to the campus food provider so students can have fresh produce and healthy choices. In return, the student dining facility asks students to separate uneaten vegetable wastes from their meals so the dining hall can offer an excellent source of compostable materials for SLUG, materials which otherwise are disposed of in a landfill.

"I enjoy seeing the young people out here working and it changes their eating habits," Pierce says. "It's great to see these kids growing vegetables and then pulling them out of the soil, washing them and eating them. It's a transformation."

On the planting day in May, Pierce gets the volunteers' attention: "Let's get these wheelbarrows loaded with compost!"

About 50 volunteers respond hoisting rakes and shovels. Pierce smiles. "What's the basis of a good garden? You've got to have soil that is rich. It's everything. Our success is in the soil."

Pierce asks the group to strive for straight rows. The rows are 24 inches high and about 18 inches apart. Wood chips are spread between the rows to create walkways. About 20 rows are formed before planting begins today.

Photo Cora White and neighbors working
Cora White and other neighbors take part in forming windrows of compost.

The group waits for Will Allen's arrival. One volunteer plays the fiddle while others join in singing David Mallett's "The Garden Song." The chorus echoes: "Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow."

Cora White lives in the neighborhood and has been a community activist and business owner for 30 years.

"I made a decision to live in this neighborhood 30 years ago. I've seen uses of this lot come and go – adults, young people and seniors. I want to be involved, work with youth groups," she says. "I have a lot of imagination and I want to use that wherever it can be used."

And so, she rolled the first wheelbarrow load of the day.

"I'm glad I didn't do this for a living," she jokes, "because the first day I'd quit. It's hard work. But the second day I'd love it all again."

"I'm excited about the possibility of the school partnering with Growing Power," says Nan Youngerman of the Badger Rock Middle School. "We feel like we are a piece of something bigger. This is step one in a brilliant project. It's going to be dirty. This is the dream project of my life. It's not like neon lights are flashing, but we are going to get our hands dirty and the worms are crawling today."

A stake in the community

Stakes and string help mark and straighten the 36-foot-long raised beds. A semitruck pulls into the parking lot at noon. It's loaded with more compost that was three years in the making and buckets of worms. The worms are key. They gobble up their weight in plant wastes each day, leaving castings that fertilize the plants.

Sarah Christman, Growing Power's farm manager and operations director, gives orders.

"Get ready," she shouts. "We're going to install these beds the Growing Power way. Pile it high and let it fly!"

Will Allen arrives shortly after in his own truck bringing lunch for the volunteers. "I'm here to get something started," he says addressing the volunteers. He has a lot of fans here. One volunteer refers to him as "the celebrity of the gardening world."

Liz Campbell, 20, is one of Allen's fans. She works at Troy Gardens, a public community gardening space in Madison, and is majoring in Spanish and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She came ready to work, knowing what to expect. She had previously attended a workshop from Allen and got hands-on experience working with worms and creating mushroom beds.

"Will wants you to walk away and know how to build these gardens yourself," she says.

"This site will change," Allen says surveying the property. "It makes me feel good to see this." He is fresh from a Kellogg's food and community conference where he spoke.

"We will use all new soil – we can do that even in places where existing soil is contaminated."

Back to the basics

"We teach business and life skills to young people," Pierce says. Food that is raised on this site will be sold locally as part of the Market Basket program and sold at farmers' markets.

"I've been inspired by all the young people who are involved and the diversity I am seeing," Allen says. "Everywhere I go people seem to be interested in what we are doing."

And so the revolution continues to gain speed rushing forward from the greenhouse to the White House. Allen's credo: "Grow. Bloom. Thrive."

Last spring Allen stood with First Lady Michelle Obama when she launched her "Let's Move!" initiative to end childhood obesity. Two months later, Obama invited Allen back to join her as a guest at a dinner at a state visit from the president of Mexico. In 2008 Allen won a genius award from the John D. and Catherine T. McArthur Foundation and was awarded a $500,000 grant for his efforts. He speaks at workshops and universities around the world. Allen smiles and then shakes off the accolades and picks up a rake.

"I've been traveling a lot lately and speaking," he says. "It's good to be working outside in the dirt again."

Natasha Kassulke is creative products manager for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.