Urban-farm road trip: Growing Power, Milwaukee

growing-power-muralTheir description of the surrounding Milwaukee neighborhood was hellish. “A grocery-store desert,” they called it. Nothing for two miles in any direction.

Now that’s where Will Allen’s urban farm, Growing Power, is now selling microgreens, perch, tilapia, pumpkins, beets, honey. And tours.

They sure know how to use space.

They sure know how to use space.

Urban-farmer friend Novella Carpenter wanted to see them—for her maybe it was pilgrimage as much as fact-finding—and I was interested in the fish farms.

Farmed fish is anathema in Alaska for so many reasons. That they eat so much wild fish, for one. That they (the salmon, at least) might escape and enter the wild-fish breeding population, for another. And, of course, that they pose substantial competition to Alaskan fishermen.

Alaskans call fish like this 'bait.'

Alaskans call fish like this 'bait.'

I assume the best of intentions from Growing Power. But I learned some dismaying things: That all the fish come as male hatchlings from New Mexico, which is far. (Reminds me of how early-1900s Alaskans brought up brook trout from Colorado to stick into random streams.) That they are raising perch, which eat meat pellets—how much fish meal is in them, I don’t know. That the fish take a year-plus to grow, and that they sell a single itty bitty fish, which let’s face it tastes like perch, for about $6.

I’m all for experimenting with urban farming systems that incorporate fish … how I love fish … but I’d need to hear more to be convinced that this could be scaled up, or repeated many times over, in a sustainable way. I’ll look into it.

The watercress above is filtering the fish-water from below. Ignore the lettuce, which was only there because the frost was coming.

The watercress above is filtering the fish-water from below. Ignore the lettuce, which was only there because the frost was coming.

The system, though, is undeniably cool. Icky water from the fish pens moves through a bed of watercress, which takes up the nutrients and thereby filters it. Then they sell the watercress. The perch are cold-water fish; for the tilapia, they use grid electricity to heat the water, and then that water in turn heats that greenhouse. (I wonder what their electricity bill looks like; I hear they have plans to go solar.)

W. still wants to raise Dolly Vardens in our basement.

Red wigglers in their sumptuous castings.

Red wigglers in their sumptuous castings.

But turns out I got way more excited about the worms than the fish. It’s also the part the farmers are most excited about, to hear them tell it.

“They said it couldn’t be done,” said the staffer leading the tour, proudly displaying a giant pile of worms on the side of a greenhouse that stays warm and vital through the Wisconsin winter.

Novella instantly started making plans to scale up her California wigglers by orders of magnitude.

Inside, the worms are working their way through more than a million pounds of food waste a week (from restaurants, breweries, grocery stores and wholesale distributors). Outside, the worms are getting a mix of coffee and brewing malt, and moving up or down in the several-feet-high pile to get to the best food or the nicest temperature.

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3 responses to “Urban-farm road trip: Growing Power, Milwaukee

  1. Hi to Kate Golden- I am disappointed thhat you left Alaska!~

  2. Hi Kate! I enjoyed reading your blog. I am an urban farmer in Boise, Idaho, and am planning a trip out your way this July for the Seed Savers Exchange annual conference. I was considering coming to Madtown (I lived there once a lifetime ago) a day or two before and checking out the urban farming scene there. I thought you may be a good gal to give the skinny, and possibly be a tour guide for me if I could offer you something scrumptious by way of a trade…what do you think?

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