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Big Man With a Plan for Big City Farming

A retired pro basketball player's program for growing organic fruits and vegetables on reclaimed urban land reaches all the way to the White House.

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— Matthew Gilson

On a wintry Midwestern day, a class of freshmen from the local Montessori high school is crowding into a sun-warmed greenhouse in Milwaukee to learn how to raise vegetables. For six weeks, the students have been focused on growing organic salad greens, herbs, pea shoots and sunflower sprouts. One day soon, they may be selling them to local residents and businesses. Their mentor and teacher, a man who towers over them, is Will Allen, a 6’7” former basketball player and the creator of Growing Power an organization that’s building on a trend flourishing across America: urban farming.

Allen’s organization not only is producing a bounty of healthy sustainable foods from fish to vegetables to eggs, but also is creating a generation of farmers and entrepreneurs. “Traditional farm families just don’t exist anymore,” Allen points out. “We’ve got to start encouraging people from urban areas to take up farming, too.”

Allen couldn’t have wished for a better proponent of his ideals than the first lady of the United States.

Urban Farming Goes to Washington … Again

Today, the trend reaches all the way to the White House. Michelle Obama is breaking ground for a kitchen garden on the South Lawn, delighting a whole host of advocates who’ve been calling for an effort exactly like this. Last fall, the Brockmans, an Illinois farm family, decided to promote farming among city dwellers with a petition for a “White House Farmer.” The idea came originally from Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. And it has had fans from Alice Waters of Chez Panisse to Ruth Reichl of Gourmet Magazine.

The Brockmans set up a website asking readers to nominate candidates for the hypothetical position. One hundred and eleven suggestions came zipping back over the Internet, highlighting agri-talent from Arizona to Utah to Wisconsin. The nation embraced the idea by casting some 60,000 votes. Among the front-runners was Will Allen, who’d been demonstrating the value of growing your own food and eating locally to urbanites for more than three decades. Allen says he wouldn’t have time to be a designated farmer, but he loves the idea of the White House setting the gardening example. And if they ever need his advice, he’s there.

A White House garden certainly has strong precedent. Eleanor Roosevelt created a victory garden on the White House lawn in 1943, a time when the nation was at war and the economy was suffering. The victory garden example showed people how to provide for themselves and conserve resources during challenging times. As Michelle Obama puts a shovel into soil on the first day of spring, the example moves forward to encourage new generations to do the same.

An Idea Blooms

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