Archive for the ‘Milwaukee’ Category
My interview with Will Allen almost didn’t happen. We were in Milwaukee shooting Sweet Water Organics and scrambling to get it all done. Given that Allen is arguably the biggest name in urban ag and in high demand it was difficult to connect with him. We had traded voice mails and emails with folks at Growing Power, the nonprofit farm and education center he heads, but we couldn’t line anything up. We were set to leave Milwaukee for Detroit and figured the interview with Allen wasn’t going to happen. To be honest, I didn’t think we needed to meet him. He is already so well known that I thought our episode on urban ag would be better if we focused on new voices. But the day before we left we got a call from the big guy himself. He was in town and wanted to meet.
We rolled out to his farm in Milwaukee and shot some b-roll and then headed south of town to where he was overseeing the construction of new greenhouses right across from Lake Michigan. We we got there he was eating lunch inside his pick-up truck. The wind was blowing a bit too hard for a sitdown interview but we did it anyway and were glad we did. Allen is 6-foot 8 and moves slowly because of a recent knee operation. He uses a rake as a cane but once he starts speaking it’s hard not be moved by the power of what he says.
Allen is showing the country and, increasingly, the world, that’s it’s not only possible, but necessary to reestablish our connection with the source of our food and each other while creating jobs and rebuilding communities in the process.
“If people can grow safe, healthy, affordable food, if they have access to land and clean water, this is transformative on every level in a community,” he says. “I believe we cannot have healthy communities without a healthy food system.”
He is making this happen. Allen deserves his star status and Food Forward’s episode on urban agriculture is going to be stronger because of our time with him. I’m glad we were able to pull it off. Thanks, Will.
After five frenetic days in New York City I confess I was looking forward to slowing down a bit in Milwaukee and catching our breath. Our plan was to visit Sweet Water Organics, an aquaponics operation inside a former factory near downtown Milwaukee. They grow herbs and lettuces in conjunction with perch and tilapia in a closed loop system.
About two hours after touching down in Milwaukee from NYC we rolled up on Sweet Water, an unremarkable looking building with little to reveal what’s inside. But as soon as we walked in I realized this wasn’t going to be a place to chill out. The energy of the people and ideas behind Sweet Water are enough to power New York City. I was tired after five days of very little sleep but Sweet Water quickly recharged my batteries.
What’s makes Sweet Water standout in our story about urban ag is they have found a way to make it pay. Restaurants can’t get enough of their products. They’ve also created a large scale composting operation that is taking spoiled food off the hands of a local grocery store and providing new urban farms with the soil they need to get started. There are also plans to create urban village on the Sweet Water site with housing and an artists’ collective. Beyond the business side of Sweet Water, the Sweet Water Foundation works with kids and the community at large to share knowledge and inspire others to come up with solutions to broken models of industrial food production. The idea is the beneficiaries of this information feed it back to Sweet Water, a reciprocal system that mirrors the closed loop of Sweet Water’s aquaponics operation. So much for slowing down.
The way the folks at Sweet Water Organics see it, if you’re going to reinvent the food system you might as well go big. They’re not just growing vegetables and fish inside an idled factory, they’re creating a new vision for food production, jobs, education, waste reduction, and community development. The excitement they feels is contagious because the Sweet Water business model and nonprofit foundation offer solutions to so many problems: environmentally destructive agriculture, poor quality food, unemployment, and feeding a hungry world with locally grown food. Spend anytime here and you see how dynamic and fertile this place is. Today reps from Mayor Daley’s office in Chicago were here. I met the company’s director of replication who is planning to open the company’s first full scale aquaponics project in West Oakland. The foundation’s director of development says there are plans to create an urban village on site complete with a creative art space and housing. Think of the impact this kind of community based, environmentally minded agriculture could have in needy neighborhoods across America. May one thousand fish and vegetables farms bloom!
Next up: my interview with Will Allen, the guru of urban ag in America.