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Farrakhan Visits Growing Power: A Meeting of Giants

By Abdul Alim Muhammad, M.D. -Guest Columnist- | Last updated: Dec 14, 2010 - 8:49:40 AM

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( - On Sunday October 10, 2010 in the city of Milwaukee, two giants met in an historic occasion that just may change the world. The two were the 6 foot 7 inch Will Allen, the founder and CEO of Growing Power, Inc. and the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. They met at the headquarters of Growing Power, a three acre urban farm within the city limits of Milwaukee.

Minister Farrakhan with Will Allen during recent visit, to Growing Power in Milwaukee. The Minister was accompanied by Mother Khadijah Farrakan, (seated center), (L-R) Dr. A. Alim Muhammad, Will Allen, Dr. Ridgely, Sherman X Reed and Sister Betsy Jean Farrakhan.
Big Will Allen stood like a gigantic statue in the bright autumn sun waiting for the Minister to emerge from the tour bus that had brought him, members of his family and staff from Chicago. Allen, a former professional basketball player in the European leagues, was dressed as always in what has become something of a uniform for him: a blue baseball cap, a bright blue Growing Power hooded sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off, exposing Will's massive arms, blue jeans and sneakers.

The Minister stepped down from his tour bus, dressed in mostly white—a white baseball cap, and warm up suit with white casual shoes.

He was accompanied by his wife Mother Khadijah, his daughter Sister Betsy Jean and son-in-law Brother Maurice who also manages the Minister's Michigan farm. Brother Dr. Ridgeley Muhammad was also there from Muhammad Farms in Georgia, along with several other Nation of Islam staff and security personnel.

The excitement was palpable as Bro. Will and the Minister embraced each other warmly and the tour of the Growing Power facility began.

Growing Power is the brain child of Will Allen, who in addition to having a background in professional basketball, was raised on a farm in Montgomery County, Maryland by his parents who were former sharecroppers from South Carolina.

After several years in the European league, Will returned to the States and settled down in Milwaukee, which was the hometown of his wife, and it was there that the farming bug began to bite. He noticed that there was an old, abandoned greenhouse property on about three acres inside Milwaukee which he was then able to acquire. He wanted to duplicate in a big way the way his parents were; hospitable people who loved to feed others from what they raised.

He wanted to show good wholesome food could be produced in an urban environment where it is needed most, in the middle of what is otherwise a food desert, and at the same time provide jobs and meaningful, practical education to urban youth who otherwise would be locked into poverty, unemployment, and eventually, poor health as a result of poor nutrition and no hope.

Over the years Will worked tirelessly to build up Growing Power, reaching out to the community which began to support his programs, influencing public officials who also began to see the worth and value of Will's dream, which is to convert the urban “food deserts” into food producing gardens of abundance and prosperity.

Today, 17 years later, Will's Growing Power is an “overnight success,” known all over the world, and attracts hundreds of visitors each month who attend seminars and participate as volunteers, joining in with Will's full-time paid staff of 39 hardworking, dedicated individuals.

Together, in the course of a year, they produce enough food to feed 10,000 community residents, pure wholesome food, raised right in their midst.

All told, Growing Power has more than 13 producing farms in the Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago areas.

Some are conventional farms out in the rural areas, but most are the small, intensive, high production urban farms that are the hallmark of the system of commercial urban agriculture developed to perfection over the years by Allen and Growing Power, such as the two acre farm run by Will's daughter Erika in Grant Park in downtown Chicago.

The combined food production of all these farms is enough to feed 50,000 people annually!

No wonder Will Allen was wined and dined at the White House by first lady Michelle Obama, is the recipient of a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship award, is among Time Magazine's 100 most influential individuals, and has been featured in innumerable TV stories and magazine articles, including Jet and Ebony.

Will is kept busy criss-crossing the country and the world sharing as much as he can with as many people as he can, spreading the message of what he used to call “the good food movement,” but now calls “the good food revolution.”

The tour begins in greenhouse No. 1, the first of 13 on the property. Greenhouse No. 1 is an old A-frame structure, built in 1929 in the classic style of Greenhouses with heavy glass panels on a steel frame. The glass has since been replaced with lighter weight plastic. About 150 feet long and more than 20 feet wide, Greenhouse No. 1 is a multi-purpose space where meetings take place around tables going right down the middle.

This is where many Growing Power seminars occur, but it also is a high production area for sprouts. In any given week, Growing Power produces over 2,000 trays of sunflower, radish, and bean sprouts, among others, and also wheat grass sold to local restaurants and supermarkets and the Milwaukee School system lunch program.

Sprouts are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, enzymes and protein in a delicious, easy to use form. At $4.00 a tray, about a pound when cut and bagged, sprouts are a good source of income on a continuous basis with a new harvest coming about once a week.

Greenhouses No. 2 and 3 are the first greenhouses to display a major feature of the Growing Power system—aquaponics.

Aquaponics is the symbiotic growth of plants and animals in an integrated system.

At Growing Power usually there is a fish tank dug below ground level, or on the ground, above which are two growing levels planted with watercress in gravel beds or potted micro-greens.

These are low-cost systems constructed from lumber, plywood and rubber sheeting and powered by an array of solar panels which both heat and pump the water from the fish tank below, up to the upper levels, percolating the fish water through the plant life on the upper two levels, purifying it until it eventually returns back down to the fish tank.

The green plants, like watercress, growing in the upper levels are harvested continuously all year long, while the fish are maturing in the tank below.

At a market value of about $16.00 a pound, watercress and other micro-greens are a steady cash crop coming from the upper levels.

Altogether, Growing Power's fish tanks are home to more than 100,000 fish, tilapia and lake perch for the most part, which upon maturity at 9 to 12 months weigh in at about 1 and 1/2 pounds which are popular with Milwaukee's famous fish fries on Fridays, each fish having a retail value of $9.00.

Beyond the traditional greenhouses, there is the hallmark of Growing Power's food producing system, the hoop house. A hoop house is essentially a low-cost greenhouse that can be constructed with commonly available materials in about one day.

It is called a hoop house because of the curved hoops made from ordinary fencing pipe.

A basic frame is made from lumber built around the half circle hoops that are staked into the ground. The whole thing is then covered with plastic sheeting and the two ends framed in with a door. Inside is a stable controlled environment good for plants that enables them to be raised for food all year round, regardless of temperature and weather conditions on the outside.

When I first visited Growing Power in January of this year, it was the day after a major blizzard had dumped 16 inches of snow and the wind was howling at 15 miles an hour and the temperature was hovering around 15 degrees Fahrenheit.

Inside the hoop houses it was a balmy 70 degrees with just the right humidity that growing plants needed.

What was the source of the heat? It was the ubiquitous compost which Growing Power produces by the ton, in fact, at the time there was a literal mountain of compost 25 feet high occupying the central portion of the Growing Power site. In addition, compost was stacked in the four corners of some of the hoop houses and outside along the sides producing heat to keep the hoop houses warm enough for plants and fish. And worms!

Sometimes Will says that he is not really in the food growing business, that he is really in the compost business, or in the business of raising worms, which he calls his “livestock.”

He estimates that at any one time he has 250,000 worms working full time at Growing Power converting raw compost into worm castings, the rich black soil that makes intense food production possible.

Without the compost, which is made by a strict formula—just the right amount of carbon and nitrogen—without the worms that eat the compost, converting it into the rich black nutrient dense living soil, Growing Power would not be able to produce so much food in so little space. The key to producing nutrient dense food that makes people healthy is to grow plants in nutrient dense soil made from compost digested by worms to make worm castings that can then be mixed with other growing components depending on the crop.

The Growing Power way will yield six or seven times as much food as you get with ordinary agriculture, in ordinary soil with chemical fertilizer, and even then, you do not get the density of nutrients in the food because it is not in the soil.

Plants need more than just the NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) found in conventional chemical fertilizer. Lack of nutrient dense foods in the diet is the root cause of the physical degeneration associated with chronic disease and premature death rates in the urban communities across America.

(Abdul Alim Muhammad is the Nation of Islam minister of health.)