Two in one (Part II)

Yesterday’s Yoga Posture: Half moon
Today’s Yoga Routine: Modified Vinyasa Flow

P.S. If you haven’t ever listened to Mitch Hedburg, you should – he has a great sketch about the untenability of 2 in 1 shampoos. And let’s be real – how many dude’s out there own Head and Shoulders 2 in 1? Of those who answer “No”, how many of you have partners to tell you which shampoo to buy instead?

Ahhhhhh! After two months apart (the last time we saw each other was singing the Toothbrush Song five miles deep in Yosemite), the great Than arrived yesterday in Milwaukee from a Jewish Song Leading retreat up North, and we reunited at a truly inspirational and world-changing urban farm called Growing Power. I didn’t realize it when I read the article at the time, but the gentleman who founded this incredible institution, Will Allen (read more about him in this bio), was included in People’s 100 Most Influential People in the World report. It is impossible to capture the magic of what is happening there – you have to see it for yourself.

Everything at Growing Power is stacked for incredible efficiency, from the farm itself, which holds multiple 10,000 gallon, self-contained aquaponic units growing watercress, mint, lemongrass, and tilapia (you heard that right – tilapia), to the multiple functions it serves in the community: providing fresh, affordable food to low-income families, and opportunities to local youth and adults to earn credits towards their GEDs, as well as volunteer hours towards future employment.

Growing Power has 50 full-time employees, many of whom live on site, and last year they welcomed over 3,000 volunteers to their premises. Personally, having worked briefly for an urban farm in Portland that struggled to find things for two interns to do, I am blown away by the efficiency needed to coordinate such a massive amount of people. My tour guide Sarah was clear that it’s an “organized chaos” that drives Growing Power forward, but whatever it is, it’s awe-inspiring. You really do have to see it for yourself, but I’ll do the best I can to capture the experience and lessons learned. Below are a series of photos, with descriptions of the innovative processes associated with each (click here for the full slideshow – it’s worth it!).

Growing Power StandThis is the Growing Power food stand, situated on a busy byway in one of the more distressed neighborhoods in Milwaukee. People come from all over throughout the day to buy produce, and to pick up food bags with enough fresh veggies to feed a family of four for a week. The cost you ask? $16. Making good food available and affordable.


PeppersBeautiful potatoes, peppers, and lettuce. Much of this food is grown on site at one of the many gardens Growing Power owns or operates, but Will Allen has also reached out to small farmers around Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri and Iowa, partnering with them to sell their goods, and keep their small farms thriving.

Solar Food StandThis $70,000 solar panel set up sits atop the Growing Power food stand, and was donated to Growing Power by a local solar research organization. These solar panels allow Growing Power to absorb as much as 70,000 Watts on a sunny day. Given that their general daily use is around 20 to 30,000 Watts, over the past few months, they’ve been able to store close to 6 million Watts in the batteries they have on site. They can either use this energy to supply their power during the darker winter months, or plug the excess back into the grid, selling their energy at $0.22 per kilowatt hour. In othet words, they are making money off of their solar panels.

Stacked GardeningThis is just the middle layer of a “stacked” garden – two 80 foot rows of water plants (watercress, lemongrass, mint, etc.) lifted on a hitch, filtering 10,000 gallons of water by means of gravity, and supplying food to 9,000 tilapia, who then reinvest the water with nutrient rich waste that feeds the plants. One water pump at the back and a passive solar heating system to bring the water to the right temperature is all it takes to keep this system running (with a hand of course from the aquaponic specialist and volunteers who keep an eye on the water, and make sure the duckweed isn’t clogging the pipes).

Aquaponic systemA view of the whole system. Remember – it stretches out 80 feet, and the water you see at the bottom is 4 feet deep. All told, this system processes 10,000 gallons of water, and holds 9,000 tilapia, all of which are raised on organic feed, and can be sold to local markets and restaurants.

Red WigglersThese are Growing Powers prized livestock – the “red wigglers”. These worms take in the massive amounts of compost processed on site art Growing Power (thanks to large donations from local breweries, grocers and cafes), and convert it into “black gold” – extremely fertile soil they can then use to intensively grow their densely packed plants on site, and at their remote locations around Milwaukee. They sift out their worms after each batch of compost is converted, and keep their worms so happy that some live as long as 5 years.

Sugar CaneIn case you were wondering how efficient and effective these greenhouses were, what you see here is sugarcane. Not exactly native to Milwaukee.

MushroomsPerhaps one of the coolest stops on the tour. Besides Than adding a lot to the beauty of this scene, what you see here is another aquaponic system, this time with mushroom production incorporated. Each oak log in the photo has had holes drilled in the side, and each hole has been filled with mushroom spawn, and then capped with food-grade wax (to ensure there’s no contamination). These mycelium slowly begin to eat the log from the inside out, until they sprout out the top. At this point, the folks at Growing Power know they’re ready, and they dunk the logs into the tilapia water. Like mushrooms in the wild, as soon as these mycelium get wet, they immediately begin to propagate in an attempt to preserve themselves, blooming into the mushrooms we recognize in our supermarket aisles. Once the mycelium have grown through the log, this dunking process can be repeated every 2 months for 6 years. That’s a lot of mushrooms!

Hoop HouseOne of Growing Powers innovative hoop houses. These greenhouses can be built just about anywhere – they even bent the metal poles themselves. In the winter time, they just addsteaming piles of compost in the corners, and use compost to line the outside, and the hoop house stays nice and toasty for the all the plants inside.


BeesWhat urban farm would be complete without goats and an apiary (not to mention chickens, turkeys and ducks not pictured here)?

Growing Power Mural

I think the thing that impressed me more than anything else though, is the incredible network that Will Allen has established over the years to make Growing Power function. Every element of Growing Power seems to be the product of a mutually beneficial connection with community organizations, local and large businesses, restaurants, schools, and more. Milwaukee, like most other modern cities, has a disturbing dearth of soil. and Growing Power is single-handedly reversing this trend. They produce massive amounts of vital compost on site and at a separate location donated to them by local waste management. The compost is produced almost entirely from waste products that otherwise would be left to spoil in a landfill: expired food brought in by the truckload from local grocers, spent grains from the local Lakefront Brewery, and mountains of used coffee beans from nearby shops. The resulting byproduct (aged 8 months with wood chips) is then fed to the farm’s prized red wigglers, who convert this nutrient rich soil into the even more nutrient dense black gold mentioned above, which they can either use or sell to other farmers in need of good soil.

The solar panels that power their facility were donated from a local research institution. Much of the land they grow on has been donated (often unsolicited) from local groups and landowners. To me, this is permaculture in action. Toby Hemenway has a great article about the myth of self reliance and sufficiency, and Growing Power is an incredible reminder of the power of a collaborative approach and attitude, and of the potential for food and agriculture to bring together neighborhoods, communities, cities – and perhaps the world? We all need to eat after all.

If any of this strikes you as particularly interesting, or if you have any questions, please let us know, or feel free to reach out to Growing Power at staff at growingpower dot org. This is just stop one on our agricultural quest. So much more to come.


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3 Responses to Two in one (Part II)

  1. Pingback: There’s No Place Like Kansas | Permculture

  2. Pingback: Free trip, eh? | Permculture

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