Will Allen Comes to Kansas City: Soil, Worms, Compost, Relationships.
Saturday, August 27th, Will Allen, CEO and Founder of Growing Power brought his 6 ft 7 frame, booming voice, bigger than life presence, charisma, and genius (declared by the MacArthur Foundation) at intensive urban farming and building relationships needed for just and sustainable food systems, to Kansas City. A long list of sponsors led by Green Acres Urban Farm and Research Project, including, Lincoln University Cooperative Extension- Kansas City Urban Impact Center, the Conservation Discovery Center, Kansas City Public Libraries, Kansas City Missouri Public School District, Emmanuel’s Camp Empowerment, The City of Kansas City, Missouri, MO State Senator Kiki Curls, MO State Rep. Jason R. Holsman, Rev. John Modest Miles, Marriott Hotels MR Capital Advisors, LLC, Robert D Mayer, and EMWOT (East Meets West of Troost) hosted Mr. Allen’s talks at the Conservation Discovery Center, Kansas City and MO Lucile H. Bluford Public Library Branch, as well as aquaponics bunk bed building demonstration at Kansas City, MO East High School.
I attended Growing Power’s Conference last September, 2000 people strong, and was impressed by how diverse the group was-- in every way—including people working in every aspect of the food system, from distributors to buyers to community gardeners--large corporations to organic farmers; it was fascinating. The opening plenary speaker was Winona La Duke, a renowned Native American Food Sovereignty Activist; the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network was well represented; there were youth and women and men and doctors, people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds and nationalities and people from all over the world, including Zimbabwe. I concluded then that part of Will Allen’s “genius” was his ability to bring a diverse group of people together, and that part of his theory of change was that you could bring about change in our food systems by bringing together everyone involved.
Allen’s KC presentations and aquaponics demonstration was diverse as well, including many urban gardeners, farmers and community activists right there in Kansas City, MO such as the Green Acres Urban Farm and Research group themselves, led by former Kansas City Councilwoman Sandra Brooks, Adenike AmenRa and Sasteh Moseley, Daniel Ordonez of the former Café Seed (my personal favorite vegetarian restaurant formerly in the area), little “Bad Seed,” Percival, and his mother, farmer, and food and farm activist, Brooke Salvaggio, Barbara KK Johnson and KaSandra Jordan of Urban Green Dreams of Kansas City, MO, Bobby Wright of Kansas City Community Gardens and Cultivate Kansas City, and Marlon Hammon and Ed McCallop, both of the Washington Wheatley Neighborhood Association. People came from as far away as Topeka, such as Rosemary Menninger of Topeka Gardens, and Lawrence, Jim Smith of Hidden Creek Farm in Lawrence, as well as St. Louis, Earnest Bradley, Program Educator at Lincoln University, and Kenneth Hutchison and his son who were farming airoponically in St. Louis—the first time I heard of “airoponics!”
Also in attendance were Professor Stu Schaeffer and JCCC Student Farm Manager Mike Ryan, both of Johnson County Community College, and from Kansas City, KS, Richard Mabion and Cultivate KC Executive Director Katherine Kelley. Randy A Wood of the Kansas City Food Policy Council and Floating Farms, a naturally producing Tilapia producing farm, was there from Licking, Missouri.
Apart from being able to pack a room with a diverse food and agriculture crowd, Allen himself, put the greatest emphasis on building soil with compost and in particular vermicompost or worm castings. This method of intensive organic farming is one I am familiar with as it is the hallmark of the Cuban people’s world famous intensive urban agriculture production which I studied over a two year period from 2006 to 2008 in Cuba.
The term, “organiponico” or using organic material, in particular worm castings, as a growing medium, is a household word in Cuba and almost every Cuban knows about the “organiponico, where Cuba’s intensive urban farmers and gardeners, build raised beds that they then fill 35 to 50% with worm castings or vermicompost. (There are even comedy routines in Cuba about the “organiponico!”) As well, Professor Rhonda Janke of Kansas State University lectured in the Growing Growers KC 2010 soil workshop that vermicompost was the most potent organic fertilizer there was up to a percentage of 50% of soil content and showed us participants pictures of very large and healthy looking vegetables grown in a 50% vermicompost, 50% soil mix. Allen has ingeniously and apparently with lots of love for farming found this out and is intensively exploiting vermicompost in his farming practice.
Allen’s other genius is for making money as a farmer, a difficult feat in modern America. He apparently has mastered what crops can bring him the most return, sprouts, as well as, as described above, learned how to intensively, yet sustainably, exploit and pump up the productivity of his growing medium to make money farming.
The foundation apparently of Allen’s ability to draw diverse people together in the same large room is his focus on and ability to build relationships with the diverse peoples needed to build new just and sustainable food systems. Mr. Allen emphasized the importance of building relationships in this food system work.
Mr. Allen briefly mentioned Growing Power’s Growing Food and Justice Initiative (GFJI), a multicultural initiative whose mission it is to dismantle racism in our food and agriculture systems, in which I have had the opportunity to participate. Before the last Growing Power conference in 2010, GFJI offered a leadership workshop training on dismantling racism in the food and agriculture systems led by Cross Roads Antiracism Institute. While we did not learn much about racism in the food and agriculture systems, the diverse in every way group, was able to discuss racism in a loving and sensitive way that enabled us to build authentic relationships that have served as a foundation for trusting and lasting, mutually--fulfilling, working relationships.
All in all, even though I had attended the Growing Power Conference in 2010 as well as a weekend workshop there this past February, focusing on aquaponics and building community food projects, I was still deeply inspired, overwhelmed, amazed and taken aback by the breadth and depth of Mr. Allen’s and Growing Power’s massive and expansive body of work that reached literally from the poorest communities in Milwaukee to communities in Ukraine and Africa and to the White House of these United States. I thank Green Acres and all others involved for sponsoring Mr. Allen’s visit and bringing together food and agriculture folk from the Kansas City area and beyond.