Several years ago, I heard a very inspiring speaker share part of his life story along with his groundbreaking work in urban farming at an agricultural conference here in Wisconsin. I was profoundly impacted by his view on agriculture, culture, politics, economics and how all of these things play a role in the success of our communities. Not too long after our first son Gabriel's birth, I realized that Milwaukee was home to the speaker I'd heard years before: Will Allen of Growing Power. We finally were able to adventure there as a family this September!
The facilities are located in an area of Milwaukee where both crime and the poverty rates are heartbreakingly high. There, at the center of what used to be a pesticide-laden chunk of land, stands the headquarters of Growing Power. When we arrived, Gabriel was already pointing at what he thought was only dirt. "Mira! Mira!" (Look! Look!) he yelled as I hurried over to stop him from getting lost or hurt in his new surroundings. I asked him, "Qué pasó mijo?" (What happened, hun?) as I noticed the mounds of dirt were actually rich mounds of compost.
Cristian was as happy as a little clam as he kept napping. We let Gabriel walk while I wore Cristian in our baby carrier that day. Once we met with our tour guide, he mentioned that Mr. Allen was on the facilities for a few minutes, and he asked if we wanted to meet him. He was such a gracious and commanding presence that Gabriel actually posed for all of the pictures! It really was such an honor to meet him.
At Growing Power they raise fish (yellow perch, tilapia), chickens, goats, worms and bees. The fish are raised in a unique growing system called aquaponics. We were able to see firsthand what that looks like, and Gabriel was able to feel the splashing water on his face as our tour guide pulled out a few fish with a net. He was so fascinated by the fish and squealed happily when they danced around in the net. He yelled, "Fishies, Mami! Look, fishies!" as he pointed in amazement. He loved them so much that when we were asking questions about the system he went over to try to catch some of his own! He almost managed to lower the net, when we realized it was much too quiet, which meant he was getting into something. Luckily, no harm was done and we hurried along to check out the rest of the farm.
A huge part of their growing systems is the rich compost they produce. These mounds of compost were Gabriel's favorite to try to climb! They first reduce the compost that is made up of recycled food waste, farm waste, brewery waste and coffee grounds. Then, they start vermicomposting. This process is when red worms are used to break down the compost that is fed to them. Gabriel was so curious about these little creatures I was holding up. He would reach out to try and touch them, but then would pull back squeamishly.
Cristian, around this time, woke up from another short nap. He moved his little head around while I pointed out and repeated what I saw. I think he loved to hear all of the flowing water and see his brother laugh as he found another mound of compost. As we continued to walk and see the free-range chickens, the goats and more of their water collection units, I was in awe. I could have never imagined that in the middle of what others might consider a danger zone bloomed a place that breathed life into the community.
Throughout our entire visit, Gabriel kept asking me with the sweetest raised brow, "Y esto?" (What's this?). He would hurry over and dig hands-deep and face-first into just about everything. One of the biggest lessons that I've learned when going out with our two little guys (under the age of two) is that I should never underestimate their flexibility. There is richness in going out together and breaking out of our comfort zones to discover something new.
In his book Good Food Revolution, Mr. Allen writes, "The worms also made me reflect again on what it took to improve the lives of people. You couldn't place folks in the middle of a blighted neighborhood — without a strong family unit and without easy access to healthy food — and expect them to thrive. If you could create an environment in which people felt secure and healthy, though, you could provide the possibility of a better life." Our visit raised a bigger question within us beyond a simple adventure to an urban farm. We understand that we have been able to provide a healthy environment for our family to thrive, and how will we use this privilege to help others? I don't think this question will be answered overnight; however, I am encouraged that by opening up our lives to a new adventure as a family we became aware of a greater need. Adventuring and discovering new things became not only about discovering the natural beauty that surrounded us, but also about digging deeper to learn more about the humanity that connects us as people.