Urban farming: Lessons from Growing Power

Just a year ago, an article in Medium touted Will Allen as “the Godfather of Urban Farming, Who’s Breeding the Next Generation of People to Feed the World.” Allen, who started urban farming in Milwaukee in 1993, then moved on to Chicago, ended up with his Growing Power organization involved in urban farming projects around the world. Along the way, Allen won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2008 and was named one of Time Magazine’s 2010 Time 100.

Allen’s vision, and his non-profit corporations, focused on reimagining and rebuilding a food system in cities. Among its ambitious projects:

  • aquaponic systems growing fish, watercress, and wheatgrass;
  • rebuilding soil through composting and vermiculture, including collection of supermarket wastes and use of red worm composting to turn them into soil;
  • increasing productivity with intensive cultivation of food plants on small plots of land;
  • sparking a passion for farming in urban youth and teaching them job skills to land jobs in the sustainable farming and food system;
  • growing mass quantities of high quality food and delivering it to people living in inner cities;
  • modeling urban farming as a real and sustainable option for people around the world.

Then, in November 2017, Growing Power crashed. After years of running deficits and with more than half a million dollars in legal judgments against the organization, Allen resigned and the organization closed its doors.

New Urban Farming Organizations Sprouting 

Across the country, supporters grieved the loss of Growing Power, of its example, and of the hope it offered for scaling up urban farming as a sustainable model. But the end of Growing Power does not mean the end of urban farming, not any more than a hard frost means the end of a garden. Instead, new plants have already begun to sprout.

In Milwaukee, Green Veterans Wisconsin plans to buy Growing Power’s shuttered headquarters, reclaiming it as “an urban farm school, co-op for small farmers and trauma resolution center.” Its mission: “to regenerate men and women who have served in the military for green jobs and green living.”

In Chicago, the Growing Power team has spun off into a new Urban Growers Collective, with a mission of “creating healing spaces through art and innovation rooted within the foundation of growing food.”

Less than a month after the end of Growing Power, it’s too soon to predict outcomes for either initiative, but they are only two of the seeds now growing.

Across the country, urban farming initiatives take multiple forms. Some focus more on producing nutritious, organic food, some more on the powerful therapeutic possibilities of connecting youth with growing, some on building community while feeding community, and some on creating a profitable business model.

Three Minnesota examples show combine focus on food, youth, and community:

Youth Farm MN, established in 1995 in Minneapolis, aims “to create an urban environment where youth could flourish physically, socially, and emotionally as they mature into young adults. Youth were the focus and food was the conduit.” After more than 20 years, Youth Farm engages more than 800 young people and works to build and feed community in five specific Minneapolis and St. Paul neighborhoods.

Youth in the Dirt Group take pride in harvesting produce that they have grown themselves.
Youth in the Dirt Group take pride in harvesting produce that they have grown themselves.

The Dirt Group’s motto is “Learning to Grow, Growing to Learn.” Its focus is on giving youth “an opportunity to experience social inclusion by being part of a safe, cohesive, structured group. Students feel pride and ownership in their collective efforts growing food together as they learn, practice, and master important life and social skills and make a difference in their communities by donating food they have grown to local food shelves and other such community organizations.” Its gardens are located in urban (Minneapolis, MN), small town, and rural settings.

The MNyou Youth Garden operates in the Minnesota city of Willmar (population about 20,000) on a plot of land and greenhouse provided by a local college. Its purpose is “to have minority youth, ages 15 to 24, research how to grow and maintain highly sought after vegetables then put that research to work. During their time in the project, the youth will develop entrepreneurial skills from working closely with mentors in local businesses on how to sell and market their products. They will also learn transferable job skills from experienced volunteers while receiving a minimum wage.”

Home-made signs mark the Dirt Group’s herb garden, and plots tended by small groups.
Home-made signs mark the Dirt Group’s herb garden, and plots tended by small groups.

Connecting food, farming, youth, and community works for non-profit organizations that do not need to make urban farming turn a profit. Some other urban farming initiatives rely on heavy infusions of grants and donations or on rent-free use of city-owned or vacant lots. Profitability – or economic sustainability, in the progressive parlance – remains the most difficult problem for any kind of farming, urban or rural, small-scale or larger.

Money, or the lack of money, led to Growing Power’s demise. Does the blame lie with the high cost of organic food production? Or with the exponential growth of Growing Power, beyond the scale that could be effectively managed?  Whatever the cause of its eventual dissolution, Growing Power gave a powerful inspiration to others to engage in agriculture that places a higher value on food and community than on profit. The seeds Will Allen planted will continue to flourish long after Growing Power’s end.

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