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Former Athlete Shares Lessons in Organic Farming with Community

Growing Power is a small organic farm located on the northwest side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, owned by former professional basketball player Will Allen. Over the last 15 years, he has developed various techniques to increase his harvest naturally, and taught people from his community and around the world better ways to feed themselves.

Most of what Will Allen is doing on his farm had been passed on to him many years ago by his parents, who were farmers.

"When I left the farm at 18, I said, 'never again,' as many farm kids do," he says." That's because of the hard work, you're going to college, you're expecting to have a different kind of life."

But after almost 2 decades of city life, and a pro-basketball career, Allen returned to his roots.

"I kind of found myself getting sucked back to something that didn't leave my system when I said, 'never again,'" he says. "And I found myself wanting to get involved in agriculture again."

Today, there are some 20,000 vegetable plants, more than a million red wriggler worms, 60,000 fish, a few hundred chickens, a family of goats, rabbits, geese and bees, thriving in and around the six huge greenhouses on Allen's farm. Growing Power, he says, has grown over the years, but the vision behind it remained the same: one of independence from poverty and chemicals.

"You have to grow soil to grow food," he says."If you have healthy food, you grow healthy people. If you have healthy people, you can grow healthy community. It all starts with the soil. Everything that's growing here is from waste material, from food waste, carbon waste, cardboard, wood chips, leaves and moldy hay. We compose that and use that to feed worms. Those worms break that compost into another value-added product called worm casting, that's our fertilizer."

On Allen's farm there is no waste, literally.

"Anything that comes in here needs to be used up in the system so you don't have waste going into our rivers, our streams or anywhere else," he says."It stays within the system. So it becomes a closed system. You're able to bring in stuff that would wind up in a landfill and turn it into useful material to grow food."

Even the water from his large fish pools stays on the farm. An entire greenhouse is devoted to aquaponics.

"Aquaponics is growing plants and fish in the same system," he says. "You have the fish down below. And you have plants above. You're pumping water [from the fish pool] through the plants to fertilize the plants. The worm castings, [from the worms that] are in the pots [holding] the plants, leach into the water [which goes back into the pool] and become part of the biological system. It's a symbiotic relationship: the plants benefiting from the fish and the fish benefiting from the plants."

Providing the farm with the energy to keep it running costs around $5,000 a month. Cutting that energy cost is the objective of one of Allen's latest projects.

"We are putting a 22 kilowatt solar system in here," he says. "We also built a high solid phase anaerobic digester, that [takes] solid food waste … [pushes] it through this big tank and [produces] acids. Those acids will go into a methane digester to produce methane gas that will run a generator to produce electricity."

In addition to producing healthy and affordable food for the local community, Growing Power supports a farmers' market for growers in Wisconsin and neighboring states. And Will Allen also offers workshops and hands-on training opportunities in a variety of agricultural endeavors, including composting with worms, greenhouse construction and beekeeping.

Groups take what they learn back to their community, Allen says. "If they don't feel comfortable, what typically happens is they call us and invite us to their community, and that becomes our outreach. My daughter, Erika, who runs our Chicago office has just come back from Macedonia, where she did project planning with some farm groups that are trying to put together a farm organization."

Growing Power staff member Leona Nakielski says hundreds of people come to the farm to volunteer.

"We're hooked up with UW, University of Wisconsin, in Milwaukee," she says. "They send students every year to do service learning. Those are volunteers who are doing it with more of a focus: they have to write a paper or do a report for their school or their class on what they learn here, what they do here."

Elementary school students also volunteer, she says. "We get second graders coming from schools to volunteer for a day. We get a big project set up for them and they help us accomplish it. They learn something and contribute to the work here."

Lauren Demet, 23, is one of the volunteers who joined Growing Power to learn about farming techniques. "I come once a week at least," she says. "It's different every day because there is so much happening here. But usually, every time I come, I milk goats."

Demet says she hopes this experience will help her run her own farm one day and produce home made cheese.

Growing Power's Will Allen says his farm always welcomes visitors who want to learn, especially young volunteers. Inspiring the next generation, he says, is key in increasing local food production and building stronger communities.