Last week, right in time for fall harvest, I found myself in the company of Will Allen, an urban farming pioneer, Annie Novak, co-founder of the country’s first commercial rooftop farm, Fritz Haeg, an edible landscaper, and 1,500 others at the first international urban and small farm conference. The weekend was hosted by Will Allen and his organization Growing Power, an educational farm organization that he founded in a food-desert neighborhood of Milwaukee 18 years ago.
Retracing my steps to Milwaukee: a few months ago, in time for spring planting, I had seen the same three urban-agriculturalists speak in New York City. I had left that evening with the strongest desire to change the world that I had ever felt: All I had to do was plant something green.
That night in New York, Will Allen said that there are enough people talking about growing food, but not enough growers. Even though the closest thing I had to farming were the articles I occasionally wrote about it, I responded by joining Annie Novak’s apprentice team at Eagle St. Rooftop Farm. Suddenly, my mostly sedentary Brooklyn life was filled with kale planting, chicken feeding, delivering produce to restaurants via bicycle, and picking up buckets of coffee grounds from local cafes for composting. Moreover, it was filled with a community of eco-agriculturalists, who were propagating my northeast surroundings with inspiring projects.
As summer went on and plants reached up to my waist, my desire to delve deeper into the agricultural field solidified. But, the question of whether this still small world of alternative farming was a solid field grew, too. The Growing Power conference was all the proof I needed to rid that doubt. The mere fact that over a hundred speakers deemed it worthwhile to trek out to the Wisconsin fairgrounds for a weekend and over a thousand audience members parted with the nearly $300 attendance fee shows that something fertile is growing. It shows that the official conference shirt, with its fistful of worms raised in the air and the words “The Good Food Movement is Now a Revolution” is not just Will’s fantasy but the reality that everyone doing “good food” work must face.
The gathering took place at “Ag Village” a remote corner of the Wisconsin fairgrounds devoted to agricultural events. It seemed the perfect setting: a recognition of the already existing and deep-stretching agricultural roots, and a positive and radical addition to them. The conference had many moments like that, ones that seemed almost normal, and yet, revolutionary. The buffet, for example, consisted of–among other items–300 pounds of wild rice, gathered by harvesters at the White Earth Reservations in northern Minnesota. Growing Power had supplied the greens, and meat came from Richard Cates, a Wisconsin dairy and livestock farmer who opens his land for Growing Power students to explore. Cutlery was indeed disposable, as one would expect at a conference, and yet, trash was divided into three containers and all dishware went into the bin with the banana peel taped to it–compost. There was merchandise for sale–it included worm poop, Milwaukee urban honey, and shirts with phrases like “I heart worms.” Seeds and liquid fish fertilizer were given out for free, as samples.
Will’s purpose in bringing these people together was to collect all the fragmented warriors of the revolution and encourage them to work with one another. For the purpose of building well-rounded troops, Will invited a diverse range of folks, not just farmers and educators, but government representatives, urban planners, social activists, the medical community, and members of the corporate world among many others. By the end of the three days of actively discussing the state and future of sustainable agriculture and overwhelming amounts of skill sharing in breakout workshops, it became clear that the good food army is not only real but strong too.
Will believes that the energy created, or rather, harnessed by the conference must now be taken back to communities. “We have this wonderful thing called food that we have to eat. My family’s legacy is to make sure that everybody eats good and everybody has access to the same healthy, affordable, good, food, that is culturally appropriate,” said Will. “The food that’s going to help our gardens, the food that’s going to help our youth.”