Health crisis? Hunger crisis? Local food production can address them both. 01 green team web02 GREENHOUSE web

According to the Zero Hunger Challenge, a program presented by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2012, the only way to end world hunger is through sustainable small-plot farming.

Some think this kind of initiative is only needed in third world countries. However, UN reports also point out that we can no longer count on industrial agriculture to feed the world, because of increasing ecological crises related to water and climate change. For example, the ongoing drought in California – which produces an astonishing two-thirds of the nation’s produce – is most certainly going to affect food availability.

Food as Medicine

The current American health care crisis is largely a food crisis. Many of our illnesses can be linked to diet and available food choices. If we can consume more fresh unprocessed foods, we will undoubtedly be healthier.

Growing our own food lets us reclaim our independence from the current food culture. It also creates jobs – growing food is, really, the original job. We can not only grow our own food, we can also use our labor to generate an income. With income we reduce poverty.

Anyone, young or old, can have this job. Our challenge is to teach every person the fundamentals of the food growing cycle, so every person can benefit.

What would a future world look like, where sustainable local small plot farms would feed urban populations? Two Riverwest residents have decided to create a program to find out, and teach people how to live in that world.

David Schemberger (Dr. Dave) and Jan Christensen have long been involved in urban agriculture in Milwaukee. They started building raised bed box gardens in Riverwest back yards in 2000.

Fast-forward fifteen years, and the face of Milwaukee has changed. Growing Power, UW Extension Discovery Farms, Milwaukee Urban Gardens, Victory Garden Initiative – urban agriculture has come into the common parlance. There are hundreds of garden plots in community gardens, back yards, schools, churches. There’s even one next to City Hall.

We’ve come a long way, but Dr. Dave has concerns.

“Are these gardens organic? Toxin-free? Are they producing?

“Urban agriculture is good to have meetings about and talk about,” he says, “but in reality, very few people in the city know how to grow food in any quantity sufficient to make a real difference in health or supply.

“We need to know how to take vacant, underutilized city land and transform it into high grade organic food-producing land.”

Garden-Farms Everywhere

In the early days of Milwaukee’s breweries, the owners had a vision – a tavern on every block. The legacy of that vision can be seen in the old “tied” taverns on our street corners. Many of them have been upgraded to house new businesses, including the Riverwest Food Co-op.

The idea put forward by Schemberger and Christensen is not dissimilar. They envision a high-production garden farm everywhere there is vacant or underutilized land, run by local farmer-entrepreneurs and providing fresh food for sale to local stores or directly to consumers.

The concept has advantages. Small scale farming is a career that people can get into without a huge up-front investment. Transportations costs are kept to a minimum, since the produce would be consumed locally. You wouldn’t even need a car to get to work.

Without a lot of overhead, local garden-farmers could potentially have jobs that would support them and their families. And the work would have dignity – they would be producing good food that would improve the quality of life for their neighbors, making everyone healthier and happier.

What would it look like? There’s really only one way to find out, and that’s to try it.

The Clarke Street PEACE Garden

Last spring, Dr. Dave undertook a project to transform the Milwaukee Urban Gardens (MUG) garden on the city-owned lot on the corner of Clarke and Bremen Streets. Using the principles of permaculture, sustainability, organic methods and urban agriculture, he wrote a proposal and designed a plan to increase the number of garden plots to 24 double-high raised beds for increased productivity. An outdoor greenhouse/growing room would allow the production of sunflower microgreens and wheatgrass almost year-round.

This plan would be implemented and maintained by a Community Garden Farmers School where teachers and students would work together to learn by doing as they created this new style of urban farming.

Changes in city ordinances now allow for this kind of building on city-owned gardens, as well as selling produce grown in the garden. The Clarke Street PEACE garden would become a model for how the many community gardens around the city could be upgraded to be effective local food production sites.

The project qualified for a Community Improvement Project (CIP) grant from the Neighborhood Improvement Development Corporation (NIDC) through the City of Milwaukee. The CIP grant is a refundable grant, so the money must be raised up-front by the organization, spent to complete the project, and then reimbursed. The plan was to raise the money through a Go Fund Me campaign, then use the reimbursed funds to maintain the program into the next season. As of this writing, the campaign and other contributions have come very close to allowing the project to qualify for reimbursement.

There have been many organically-minded students, volunteers, community service learners and other participants in creation of the urban agriculture infrastructure that has taken place over the summer.

Among the most interesting has been the group of young doctors serving their internships at the Columbia St. Mary’s Family Health Center on North and Humboldt. They are required by their advisor, Dr. Jim Sanders, to come and spend some time volunteering in the garden. There they learn about local food production and the health benefits of raising your own food.

“Food as medicine is basic,” Dr. Dave asserts. “Hippocrates said, ‘Let thy food be thy medicine, let thy medicine be thy food.’

“Our food is a foundation of our health as a culture. We have to take it seriously.”

Nutrition and Commerce

It cannot be overemphasized that small scale farming can become the new industry that brings family-supporting jobs to Milwaukee.

Dr. Dave puts it this way. “There are two reasons to grow food: nutrition and commerce. If you eat what you grow, you will be healthier, happier, and live longer. If you grow food you have a job. If you have a job, you get paid. If you get paid, you can get out of poverty.

“If you’re good at it, you can make a good living. In Cuba, urban farming has become one of the highest paid professions.

“Properly managed, a city lot garden can offer an income of as much as $30,000 a year. I don’t see why the city shouldn’t help create ten of these gardens next year. This vacant piece of land was producing nothing, not even tax revenue. As a full-on production garden it can provide $30,000 worth of income for someone, or some group, while improving the health and well-being of everyone in the neighborhood.”

Planning for the Spring Season

Like farming, education is cyclical. Plans are being made for the next session of the Community Garden Farmers School Program, scheduled to begin in March 2016, when they hope to partner with a number of groups and institutions in the city.

“Integrating experimental work into mainframe university level education is crucial,” says Dr. Dave. “The city can help by supporting these experiments to see how they are going to work.

“What we teach is hands-on permaculture, sustainability and organic practices. We need to do the ongoing work of designing a formalized curriculum and keep it current.”

But outside institutions are only one aspect of urban farm project. As Dr. Dave says, “It takes a community to do this. There needs to be a broad base of supporters to help a farmer get started using some kind of crowdfunding.”

In planning for their 2016 session, he concluded, “we are seeking students, volunteers, teachers and board members. Urban farmers need a community of mentors and advisors to work with them. We hope to offer them some of that support.”

Learn more:

Review summer projects, find links to videos and stay in touch by liking the Community Garden School – Riverwest Facebook page.