i was fortunate enough to be asked to speak on a panel as part of the growing power conference on small farms and urban agriculture. i was there to speak about detroit and some of the anti racist work we are doing in detroit. but i was as excited about having the chance to visit growing power and one of my heroes will allen. for years i’ve been hearing about what amazing programs they are doing, and have had the chance to have several visits from will and conversations.
so while i could go on about the conference itself, and the amazing people i met, and all the great times i had with detroit folks, i’m not gonna bother. i just don’t think i can articulate it, other than to say the older i get the more i realize how much i have to learn about myself and other people.
instead i’m just going to report about visiting growing power.
the first thing you see is a giant series of solar panels, with a farm stand built under them. this array is enough to run all of growing power on a sunny day. the only thing that surprised me was that they didn’t have a rainwater collection system hooked up to it. i’m sure it’s coming soon.
then they marched us into a big tent and made us wait for will to show up and give us a tour. we waited for at least 20 minutes before the legend showed up.
sure i could have been annoyed, but i had good company, felt a bit better rested than the day before, and it’s will allen, how can you be annoyed with him. I’m sure his employees could tell me.
the whole main building is constructed out of these old 1920’s era a-frame greenhouses. they are looking a little rough around the edges, and it seems to have taken a lot of duck tape and bubble gum to keep them going, but some how they make it work. the first greenhouse is mostly shoots and sprouts; wheat grass, pea, and sunflower. this i gathered was a pretty big part of their revenue stream.
all over the greenhouses were all these crazy systems that they had patched together. it seemed a little like they just kept throwing things up, and yet somehow it works. this one is a triple-decker aquaponics system. the bottom layer is a tank with 8000 tilapia swimming about. in order to aerate and filter the water it gets pumped up to the top layer where the tomatoes are growing. the water slowly flows though the layer that pots of tomatoes are growing, watering them and fertilizing them as it goes. then it drops down to the next level where the water cress is growing, it slowly works its way to the other end, and then back into the tilapia tank.
it would be really easy to pick apart the system – point out how leggy the tomatoes seem, or that the watercress seems stunted, but the fact is they are doing incredible things – and not being held back for the need for perfection while working with highly complex systems. and they are growing a ton of food, and able to provide for half their operating expenses via sales and services. i long ago stopped judging the way others were doing things and tried to have an open mind about what i could learn from them.
in another greenhouse they had something like 50 large worm bins, full of 5000 pounds of worms. they would routinely harvest the worm castings and then use this as a top dressing on the potted plants. it was also used in a worm tea that was then used in their simple hydroponics system. as interesting as the worm bins and hydroponics systems were, it was the compost sifter built out of an old dryer that i was really interested in.
they had taken most of the sides off of the drum inside the dryer and replaced it with fine holed hardware cloth. below they had created a shoot that allowed the sifted warm casting to come out the back to be collected.
inside the rest of the greenhouse, more composting, more aquaponics and a giant digester that looked like something out of charlie and the chocolate factory.
then it was out into the rain. the old greenhouses take up a large amount of growing power’s space, but in the back area is a crazy array of hoop houses, many of them bent and constructed as part of workshops. it was hard to keep track of them all and what they were being used for, some had mushrooms, some chickens, turkeys, some more traditional in ground growing, and of course a few had aquaponics systems.
the aquaponics systems that they had set up inside the hoop houses actually seemed to be doing better, the plants looked healthier and it didn’t seem nearly so humid. i’m guessing it had something to do with better ventilation and better light.
plenty of critters abounded – somewhat for production, but i gathered that they were also to give milwaukee school kids a chance to connect with farm animals.
this goat seemed to have a special fondness for me, as it kept coming up and rubbing on me.
the real back bone of this operation – and the one real take away for me is making compost – everything runs on compost – be that straight compost or that used in the worm bins. i can only assume that they must have some other location that they do additional composting at, for there were few large piles of note, and no room for more piles, but there were a few of these pallet composting systems.
semi-rat resistant, and as you might be able to see in the background stackable when not in use as they have a pallet on the bottom so they can be moved with a tractor with a skid loader on it.
while the place might be called growing power, it was obvious that it ran as much on people power. as is evidenced by the massive number of wheelbarrows.
all around volunteers, employees, and class participants scurried around busy as can be, most trying to stay one step ahead of will and his wishes, which seemed a challenge – as even with a bum knee he moved swiftly and didn’t keep to the script.
like most folks i talk with, i left growing power a little overwhelmed. i didn’t worry too much about it though, as i knew that ma and i would be back in about a month, and that with any luck i would be able to take a little more time to poke about, and maybe even convince some one from growing power to give me a more detailed technical tour. i still don’t find myself passionately wanting to put in an aquaponics system, but i do find myself wanting to return to some of the writings of the new alchemists. i’ve been slowly amassing their journals over the last couple of years, and they are full of fascinating ideas very similar to growing powers.
i was also struck by how well growing power used permaculture principles of design – everything was well integrated into the whole. the lesson i think is less about how one could replicate growing power – but how they have tapped into the resources available to them, how they have seen the needs in their community and how they have connected them for mutual benefit.