What will urban agriculture in Milwaukee look like without Growing Power?
When Will Allen announced his retirement in November, 2017, one could almost feel the foundations of the urban agriculture movement do a little seismic shuffle. A potful of micro-
greens teetered and fell off a shelf. Worm castings sifted through a screen of their own accord.
As reports trickled out about big debts and lawyers gathering like squash beetles, nobody who had been paying attention was really surprised. Will had always dreamed big, reached far. That’s the gamble farmers take every spring when they plant a crop. Will there be a harvest? A payoff? You never know.
A lot of Will’s dreams paid off big. He sat at the table with Michelle and Barack. He helped thousands of kids in ways that haven’t been measured yet. He helped hundreds of young folks decide if farming was for them. Or not. And he grew a lot of food.
But retirement had been coming for a while. Health concerns and perhaps a change in the wind were making the decision for him. And when Will met Brian Sales, it looked like a door was opening.
Green Veterans of Wisconsin
Five years ago Brian Sales was an Army combat veteran enrolled in an Alternative and Renewable Energy Management program at Everglades University in Boca Raton, Florida. He and fellow student Evel Travieso, an Air Force veteran, got to talking.
“This renewable energy thing is so cool, and sustainability is evolving with new ideas all the time. How come nobody is teaching veterans this stuff?” Sales recounts the conversation.
“We did our research, and found there were no veterans’ organizations advocating or introducing veterans to sustainability in the country.” So together they started Green Veterans USA.
“Initially we just started focusing on green buildings and alternative/renewable energy resources,” Sales explains. “Now we’re looking at sustainability in a holistic approach,” so the group’s focus has become energy conservation, waste remediation, affordable housing, eco-tourism, and, most recently, urban agriculture.
Since its inception in south Florida in 2012, Green Veterans USA has grown to four chapters, in Florida, Puerto Rico, Michigan and here in Wisconsin. Green Vets Wisconsin has not yet finished paperwork for its non-profit status, so until that time Groundwork Milwaukee is serving as the group’s fiscal agent.
In 2016, Brian Sales knew he needed to talk to Will Allen.
After graduating, Sales had gotten involved in an organization called Sublime Soil. They were in charge of remediating the waste stream from Park Avenue Barbeque, a restaurant chain with nine locations in south Florida. Among other initiatives they started composting and vermiculture.
“Then we had this thing called worm castings,” Sales said. “It’s fertilizer. Who knew?
“The next thing you know, my boss was saying, ‘You know our chain spends about one and a half million dollars on produce a year, right? What if we started growing our produce on the soil and worm castings you produce? That would make it a closed loop, waste reduction and food production facility.’”
Sales needed more information, so he Googled “urban agriculture.”
“Guess whose name came up?”
The Growing Power website told him that there was a conference planned in a few weeks, so Sales and a friend planned to attend. Sales recalls his first meeting with Will Allen. It was November 18, 2016, and he and his friend “just showed up” at the Silver Spring facility, where Will was conducting a tour for chef, author and slow food activist Alice Waters. Sales asked if they could do the tour with him, and Will said, “Tag along!”
“I was just mesmerized,” Sales said. “There’s something about seeing Silver Spring for the first time that just mesmerizes you. There’s something about the piecemeal nature of it, like it has grown over time.” He contrasted that with some newer state-of-the-art installations, that are built all at once and seem almost sterile. The Growing Power facility obviously was assembled as new ideas evolved, with improvements and additions made as they were discovered.
“What would it take for me and my buddy to come here for 30 days and work our asses off for you?” Sales asked Will.
Will’s answer: “Buy a plane ticket.”
So Sales learned urban agriculture in January in Wisconsin. “We veterans like to learn new things in the worst possible conditions.”
“We whipped all their aquaponics systems back into shape, because they were so raggedy. I was like, ‘Let’s just do it.’ So we learned that, we learned the microgreens, we learned composting. When we got back to Florida we were very motivated to come back and start a chapter in Wisconsin, so we came back in March to launch Green Veterans Wisconsin.”
They decided to launch their new branch at the 2017 Wisconsin Better Buildings: Better Business Conference in Wisconsin Dells on March 1. Will Allen was a featured speaker, so they met him in Milwaukee and drove him up to Wisconsin Dells.
“It was a cool drive,” Sales recalls. “He was just talking and talking. At one point he said, ‘You know, I’m thinking of retiring and I don’t have a successor.’
“He was hinting and hinting, and finally before I left he said, ‘Are you interested?’
“I said, ‘No, I really have cool things going on already.’
“He said, ‘I know. Think about it. I’ll teach you everything I know about urban agriculture.’”
They negotiated for about a month, and Sales gradually came around. “Finally, I thought, ‘If I want to become an urban farmer, it would be foolish of me to not go learn from Will Allen.’”
Sales started as Assistant Manager/Aquaponics Director, then began to take on more responsibilities. But trouble was brewing. As Will Allen moved into retirement, the financial foundations of the organization were revealed to be crumbling.
When Sales became aware of the impending financial downfall, he wanted to help along Growing Power’s rebirth into a new role in Milwaukee’s urban agriculture scene.
A New Plan
Sales’s vision for the next phase of Growing Power is centered on his organization, Green Veterans of Wisconsin.
The mission of Green Vets, Sales explains, is “Rapid deployment of sustainable initiatives in communities. It is built on four pillars: Reintegration, Sustainability training, Service projects and Trauma resolution.”
Although Growing Power held a broad range of other real estate, Sales has focused on a sustainability plan for the Silver Spring Drive facility. His plan has three platforms.
Milwaukee Urban Farm School will continue with workshops, training and tours. It will continue to grow farmers, and students and staff will serve as ambassadors for the urban agriculture movement. Prospective partners include the Institute for Urban Agriculture and Nutrition (IUAN) and Michael Carriere, PhD.
Trauma Resolution Center will serve as a healing center for anyone suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injury, or for people from inner city environments who need healing from trauma. Prospective partners include the Center for Veterans Issues, Dryhootch Milwaukee, and (hopefully) the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Small Farmers Cooperative will offer added value to its members, including access to equipment, hoop houses and other resources of the new organization. Prospective partners include the Milwaukee Farmers Union and Groundwork Milwaukee.
Sales hopes the new model of multiple collaborative groups will eliminate the stress of a single entity running the whole facility. “I want to facilitate the farm at Silver Spring so it can be used by other urban farmers,” Sales explains. “I’m looking for tenants—I’ve been talking to People Powered Produce (a local urban farming group) as a possible tenant. I have a guy that wants to raise sheep. Someone who wants to raise bees.”
Sales plans to augment the financial health of the new organization by getting grants or other financing to teach veterans agriculture and to offer programs to address PTSD. He is encouraged by the new Wisconsin Veterans Farm Bill signed on December 11.
Asking the Wrong Question?
Sales’s vision for a restructured organization to rise from the ashes of Growing Power is set against an urban agriculture landscape far different from the one Will Allen saw two decades ago. Thanks to the advocacy work of Will himself, and a growing army of urban farmers and local food enthusiasts, urban farming is known and respected today, not just in Milwaukee, but nation-wide.
In Milwaukee, several individuals and groups with small urban farms are selling Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares to their neighbors. Start-up companies make canned and fermented foods grown locally to sell at farmers markets. Restaurants have their own gardens where they grow fruits and vegetables for local food specialties. The Young Farmers group grows food on vacant lots, and sells it to neighbors door-to-door or from farm stands at their gardens.
City-wide, a non-profit called Groundwork Milwaukee helps administer community gardens for neighborhood groups on 112 city-owned lots. Every year, Victory Garden Initiative helps install some 500-plus new back-yard raised bed gardens.
People have asked whether Brian Sales is the new Will Allen. That might be the wrong question to ask.
What are the right questions? Perhaps some of them are being asked by Nick DeMarsh, Food Systems Director of Groundwork Milwaukee.
He sees urban agriculture as just one part of a larger cultural change having to do with the way we manage our food system—what we eat, how our food is grown, produced, prepared, and moved from one point to another. The massive food system we have in place today succeeds in that it feeds people, but there are serious questions about the waste, quality, and distribution of our food, and the part it plays in our health, or lack thereof.
There’s no question that some people are moving toward a model that incorporates more locally-grown and produced food, and away from mass-produced food from large corporations. But restructuring that local food system is complicated.
“Food systems are just that—they’re systems,” DeMarsh says. “They’re made up of a lot of moving parts, including lots of people. I think that going forward we in Milwaukee should think about systems, not just individuals.”
DeMarsh has a lot of respect for Growing Power, and says no one can really replace Will Allen. “We need to give Will Allen a lot of recognition for his contributions. It’s both a nod to Will to say than no one can replace him, and it’s also a recognition to say that if we want to advance food systems in Milwaukee it can’t be about just one person. It has to be about people and building collaborations; about creating a seamless process for getting food to people. And at the end of the day those systems need to be very simple, very straightforward.”
Figuring Out What Works
Here’s another question. What does simple and straightforward look like? It seems like our food system is simple and straightforward now. Most of us go to work all day, earn money from a big company, stop at a big grocery store or a fast food restaurant on the way home and buy food with that money. Simple.
So here are a couple more questions. Why do so many people report that it’s so unsatisfying? And why are so many people finding they are unhealthy in ways directly related to food?
DeMarsh envisions a food system that allows for more local production of food, and opportunities for more people to play some role in growing their own food. But he doesn’t believe there is one firm equation for how that should happen. Rather, we need to encourage people who want to try new ideas.
“For too long we’ve been telling ourselves that Milwaukee is the leader in urban agriculture,” DeMarsh states. “I think this has undermined efforts to look at other places that might be doing something better. We’ve been naïve to tell ourselves that we know the best way.”
Perhaps the dissolution of Growing Power will offer Milwaukee a moment to look around and notice other work that has been done, not only to further urban agriculture and local food production, but to build a new food system. “Groundwork Milwaukee, through supporting its 112 community gardens throughout the city, is supporting that many community leaders in urban agriculture. Are they all Will Allens? No. But do we want that many new Will Allens?”
DeMarsh also references Milwaukee Farmers Union, a cooperative made up of urban farmers in the Milwaukee area. “In the case of the Milwaukee Farmers Union, we have done years of research. We looked at individual contemporary case studies, both here and elsewhere in the state. One of our members, Kat Neubauer, went and studied the Fifth Season Cooperative in Westby, Wisconsin, to learn about a productive model for a small famers cooperative.”
The secret of success, DeMarsh says, is find your roots before you can expect the plant to flower.
Another question DeMarsh examines has to do with the entrepreneurial model that Will Allen espoused. We have spent years exam
ining the viability of urban farming as a family supporting job.
“We need to ask ourselves what our goals are,” DeMarsh says.
“I’m beginning to think the goals of urban agriculture should be more around healing,” he continues. “We need to look at mental, spiritual, and physical health as outcomes. These things need to be subsidized as well as just food production.
“Our gardens are a lot of things. They’re the neighborhood’s pantry, but they’re also the neighborhood’s therapy.
“While I am a proponent of food systems, I would like to see the metrics shift to one that prioritizes healing. If that’s our new goal, we shift from a goal of making money to one of making health.”
This is one area where Brian Sales and Green Vets, with their new vision for a re-imagined Growing Power, would agree. A major thrust of his new vision is PTSD treatment of veterans and young people from the inner city. And he comes to this vision in a very personal way.
“I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said, “but since starting this job I literally quit all the pills that the VA prescribed. There’s something about the activity, there’s something about working with the damn worm castings and soil that’s antidepressant.
“Urban farming is my medicine.”