Growing Power Comes to Madison

By Joan Fischer

“I’m here to get something started and help get the community involved,” says Will Allen.

That’s what Allen, the CEO of Growing Power and possibly the world’s most famous urban farmer—earlier this week Allen, already a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People—does all over the country.

Growing Power has trained urban farmers from Chicago, New Orleans, and Brooklyn to Kenya, Macedonia, and the Ukraine. But only rarely has the Milwaukee-based green giant taken the baby step over to Madison.

Until now. Growing Power is serving as a key partner in an ambitious urban farming project taking place on Madison’s South Side on the four-acre campus of an abandoned school. May 1 was the first official planting day, and some 50 volunteers of all ages dropped by to pitch in.

“There will be no bluegrass on this site,” declared Tom Dunbar, executive director of the Center for Resilient Cities, which is leading the project alongside Growing Power and Madison Gas and Electric. “Everything planted will be something to eat.”

Indeed, the former Badger School and its grounds, now called the Resilience Center, will become a bustling neighborhood hub for all things farming, including community gardens and greenhouses for year-round growth, fish farming, a commercial kitchen, a coffee shop, and a charter middle school that will use the entire campus as a living classroom. Innovative urban agriculture and efficient energy will be used in all operations and provide learning opportunities and employable skills for participants of all ages.

It’s that grand vision that drew Will Allen.

“This is really about a new industry,” says Allen. “Urban agriculture is a small farm industry that will create jobs in thousands of projects like this all around the country.”

As a start, volunteers put in four 36-foot-long raised beds, soon to grow spinach, lettuce, and carrots. The Growing Power practice is to not dig into the ground, which in most cities has suffered from at least some contamination. The raised beds, two feet high and 18 inches apart, are created simply by dumping compost right onto the grass. Allen and his team trucked the compost in from one of their farms near Milwaukee. (Eventually compost will be produced on site.)

Almost as a final benediction, the rows were then anointed with worms—buckets and buckets full of red wigglers whose castings will make the soil wildly fertile. Allen considers such soil the secret to any growing success.

“You’ll be surprised by how much production you’ll get out of this space,” says Allen, who ought to know. His demonstration farm in Milwaukee grows about $5 worth of produce per square foot, which translates to more than $200,000 of produce per acre.

Many more community planting days and other events will take place this spring and summer. Stay tuned at the Center for Resilient Cities.

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