Monday, July 18, 2011

It’s All About the Soil

On Friday, urban farming legend Will Allen visited Franklin Park Conservatory to support a fundraiser for Ameena Salahuddin, who is starting the Stiletto Gardener, the latest of the sixteen Regional Outreach Training Centers of Growing Power. The evening started with a small reception in the Palm House. I was able to attend the reception courtesy of Seeds of Significance (after promising to blog about the event). There were light appetizers (with particularly memorable corn salsa) and the conversation centered on the content of the biodegradable plates. I was delighted to run into Trae from the Bexley Community Garden; Trae has attended a number of seminars at the SACG and has also benefitted from the generosity and assistance of Seeds of Significance in her own gardening endeavors. We also ran into Kojo from the New Harvest Community Garden in the New Linden neighborhood. The Local Matters folks were also out in force. Later, Peggy from HHCG asked for help to subsidize the admission of another community gardener, but again, Seeds of Significance stepped in and paid for her ticket. The Stiletto Gardener wore her trademark stiletto heels and Allen wore his trademark cutoff sweatshirt.

I have included a picture of Bill Dawson with Mr. Allen. Their day began extra early with appearances and interviews throughout the WTTE Good Morning Columbus show on Fox 28. Their weekend continued working at the Stiletto Gardener building hoop houses, compost bins and aquaponic systems on Saturday and Sunday.

Allen narrated a program of over 650 slides over the next 90 minutes. Growing up on a farm in Virginia, he swore that he would never return to farming. Instead, he played basketball for the Miami Hurricanes and later in Europe. While working for Proctor & Gamble in Wisconsin, he bought in 1993 the last working farm in Milwaukee near an old Army base. This then became the center of his life.

It's all about the soil. To break even in agriculture, the farm needed to produce an enormous amount of food in a small space. The only way to do that is with great soil. Because much of the soil in urban areas is polluted and filled with construction debris, it is necessary to create your own. Therefore, early on Allen began composting everything and anything, particularly unused and unsold produce from wholesalers and grocery stores, as well as the byproducts of beer producers, leaves and wood chips. As Growing Power expanded to support gardening projects at schools, nursing homes, companies, rooftops, urban neighborhoods, etc. and to build more than 22 new greenhouses, he bypassed the time consuming task of digging out construction debris (like we did at the SACG) and destroying dilapidated parking lots. Instead, he delivers thousands of pounds of compost and builds the garden from the ground up. He showed slides of creating extensive gardening space on top of parking lots by simply putting down six inches of compost on top of the concrete.

It takes 3-8 months to create compost from waste (depending on whether and how often the compost is turned during the decomposition process). At some GP facilities, the compost is grown in small 4x4 bins, but in others it is created from dumping mountains of food (still in the cardboard boxes) and other waste and letting them decompose slowly. For instance, GP now has a four-acre composting site at the nearby sewage plant in a suburb which has mountains and mountains of compost being grown. GP even collects food waste from Wal-Mart to support its efforts. All told, GP composts 180,000 pounds of food waste each week (or 10M pounds/year).

Allen said that he figured that he needed to sell $5 of produce per square foot from his farm (or $200,000/acre). GP does this by selling food to public schools and through Sysco Systems and through its own retail outlets. They use all available space. In dark places, they grow mushrooms where other plants will not grow. They deliver food to stores within 36 hours of harvest, instead of the two weeks which is common in the industry. Fresh food tastes better.

Vermicompost. Growing Power is also famous for promoting vermicomposting, i.e., fertilizer made from worm poop. He loves his tens of thousands of worms, which he claims can live for 20 years. He picks up hundreds of them with his bare hands. The worms are active year long by living in the warm compost piles. GP sells worm fertilizer for $4/pound retail.

Acquaponics. Growing Power is also famous for growing fish, particularly tilapia and perch, which he can sell in restaurants, stores and markets. He started with a three-barrel system: He would grow 50 pounds of fish in one barrel, use one barrel as a filtration device and the other barrel had weeds (which would feed the fish). His system is much more sophisticated now and has evolved into a vertical system in order to conserve space. The fish waste feed the plants and the plants feed the fish and the water is purified by running through soil. The whole greenhouse system is heated year round with solar energy and with the heated water which raises the tilapia.

Another one of his common systems is to take a field; dig two trenches (one for perch and one for tilapia) and put a hoop house over it. He then piles compost around the outsides of the hoop house (which keeps the wind out) and in each of the corners. The heat from the compost keeps the temperature inside the hoop house warm enough to grow fish and greens. Each of these types of hoop houses cost $5,000 to build and raise 20,000 fish/year.

Like the SACG, GP does its best to capture all storm water runoff. The water used to raise the fish and run the greenhouses is captured off the roofs of GP's buildings.

Education. Growing Power also has an extensive youth education system. After spending a morning with hand-on gardening tasks, the kids then practice their writing composition skills by writing essays and stories about their experience. GP also teaches them how to preserve food (i.e., canning) and how to cook nutritious dinners.

Other Agriculture. GP also works with Heifer International and raises alpine goats and chickens. He also raises bees and collects 100 pounds of honey/hive each year, which is sold to support their program.

GP has supported gardening projects in Chicago, Kenya, Ukraine and London.

Sustainability. All staff salaries are paid through earned income (from selling honey, compost, food, etc.). Approximately half of its budget is derived from earned income, not grants.

GP has established relationships with all kinds of entities. For instance, with Kohl's, GP installed urban gardeners at the company HQ. GP also collects the food waste from their cafeterias to support the composting operations and feeds the kids in the Kohl's company daycare program with fresh produce. In turn, Kohl's employees volunteer at GP.

Allen extorted attendees to run non-profits more like businesses in order to sustain them for the long-term.

He was also quite complimentary of the Mayor of Cleveland for aiming to create a sustainable agricultural system in the City of Cleveland by 2019. Too few cities can feed their population in this day and age.

The whole experience was quite fascinating for a geek like me. The next day, Betty and I discussed the feasibility of creating a hoop house at the SACG to grown food year round. Betty is all for it, but we had to laugh at the thought of trumping through several feet of snow to get to the hoop house and harvest kaleJ When I spoke later with Beth about this idea, we both agreed that we needed a vacation each winter. . . . . . I might try this in my backyard first before investing in a hoop house for the SACG . . . . .

Good luck Ameenah.

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