Friday, September 28, 2012

Local Food Revolution

Local Food Revolution

There is a revolution in local food production in the US.  Quiet, underreported, yet accelerating; untold numbers of home gardens, thousands of community gardens, small-scale market farms and community supported agriculture, farmers’ markets, and food banks and shelters supplied with fresh, wholesome vegetables, are beginning to flourish in every corner of the country.  If you don’t feel the excitement in your community, you need to pay attention and get moving! 

This article will give you a feel for this movement and introduce you to places, projects and people that have created a new revolution in local foods.  I will draw it to a close with the compelling arguments that urban farming is the natural heart of the Transition Towns movement.

The foundation of a sustainable economy is local food.  It is the low-hanging fruit (pardon the pun) of restoring local economies.  It takes the least monetary investment and uses readily available capital resources:  land, labor, and human capital.  It can be pursued on home lots, vacant lots, parks, schools, churches -- any tillable patch of unused property.  But, it is made possible only by people who are willing to do the necessary work. 

Local food has real economic value:  American economist Henry George said over a century ago, in a day when most of us raised our own food, that land plus labor equals wealth.  That is still one of the most simple and sound economic laws we have.  It is common sense. 

Food is a major part of our budget.  What we grow at home we do not have to pay for at the grocery story.  Grow more food than you need and you can sell or barter it.  Add an entrepreneurial spirit and you can create capital, including cash that can be invested in growing the local food base, the local economy, and the local community.  Vacant and fallow land are put into production, jobs are created, wealth is produced, and more money is circulated locally where it has a multiplying effect on the local economy.  A rising spiral of economic change is thus started.

Production of food is only part of this economic cycle.  Very quickly a demand will grow for goods and services needed to produce, store, and move the food.  As the volume and variety of food increases, an expanded network for processing, storage and distribution is needed:  More jobs, more local capital.

As wealth accumulates it can and should be reinvested locally, not to distant shores.  This includes not only cash but also time and labor.  Bartering is a part of this local economy, and even a local currency begins to make sense.  Local exchange markets for goods and services, ditto.  Once the ways and means are found to create a viable local food system, the trend expands into others areas of the community. 

The most important form of capital is social capital.  Social capital is found in the solid foundation of a self-determining community.  People who identify with and work for the welfare of their community help shape its growth and maintenance.  As folks seek more ways to improve their community, social capital will grow and with it a new quality of life emerges.

There is nothing magical about this process.  It is the way a community ecosystem works.  It is a natural, human-scaled way of life.  It is something we have lost to the global-industrial economy.  But we can bring it back.

This is not just a dream.  It’s not a utopian fantasy.  It is happening all over the country. Let’s take a look.

Growing Power – Milwaukee, WI

One of the premier local food projects is Growing Power based in Milwaukee.  Because of its success and steadily growing national reputation, we could call it the “poster child” of local food projects.  However, the term “child” is certainly a misnomer for founder Will Allen; he is a big, muscular dude, 6’7”, former pro-basketball player.   He is widely considered the personal exemplar of urban agricultural renewal. (

Allen, who grew up on a farm, bought a few acres of one of the last remaining working farms in Milwaukee in 1993 to sell produce he was growing.   He had been working as a successful corporate executive but had reconnected with the soil during a visit to a farm in Belgium.  Growing Power was formed as a nonprofit organization in 1995 and was developed around three services:
  •         The Market Basket, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program
  •        Will’s Roadside Stand, an in-house farmer’s market, and
  •        The Rainbow Farmers Cooperative (RFC)
The main facility consists of a number of large greenhouses (see image to the right), a composting facility, vermiculture (worms), bees, aquaponics (fish), small animals, training gardens, kitchen and food distribution center.  Allen said that 150 varieties of food are grown at Growing Power.  

An important part of the program is soil development using worms (vermiculture) and millions of pounds of food waste from the city:  Milwaukee Black Gold.  Growing Power soil can produce five times the value of crops per square foot as plain dirt.

Growing Power statistics are hard to nail down because they change so fast.  But one is a 40-acre farm less than an hour from Milwaukee on which they have five acres devoted to intense vegetable production.  Allen also owns a 100-acre family farm.  

Growing Power grows food beyond Milwaukee.  There are now over 200 acres of land in production on 20 different farms around Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago.  The Rainbow Farming Cooperative consists of a network of about 300 family farms in Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and other states.  Growing Power distributes some 100,000 pounds of food per week.  Every week 300 or more Market Baskets of food are distributed around Milwaukee. 

Growing power has a staff of 150, and hiring more, and a small army of volunteers who produce roughly half a million dollars’ worth of vegetables, meat and fish per year.  Each year 10,000 or more people visit and tour Growing Power.  A thousand and more have taken training courses to learn basic urban agricultural skills to help them start their own efforts in their hometowns.  Growing Power and Maple Tree School and Community Garden also have five acres of land in Milwaukee to teach organic gardening and local food business acumen.

Allen is deeply concerned with quality food and optimum health, especially for the poor and working people.  He is concerned with the fact that there is no grocery store within 3-½ miles of the Growing Power headquarters – a food desert – and that people are forced to buy low-quality, high-priced, foods at convenience markets.

Growing Power established a community garden in downtown Chicago, managed by his daughter, a city that “has 77,000 vacant lots,” which provides food for shelters and soup kitchens in the city.  It is also helping set up projects in other impoverished areas across the United States, including training centers in Forest City, AR; Lancaster, MA; and Shelby and Mound Bayou, MS.  There are 17 affiliated regional training centers around the country, partnerships with over 100 organizations and some 70 projects in the works.  Allen believes that the new generation of farmers will not come from the country but from the city.

Will Allen, at 60+, is a man of great energy, who works “17 hours per day,” he says.  After a time in professional sports, before starting Growing Power, he was a star sales executive and he has practiced executive talent.  But farming is in his blood.  Both his and his wife’s parents were farmers.  His experience on the farm in Belgium gave him a strong interest in intense agriculture.  He started small-scale farming on his own and quickly developed Growing Power as a nonprofit to serve his community.

Allen has been well recognized for his work.  He is the recipient of a number of awards including the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” and honors from the Ford Foundation and the Kellogg Foundation.  Each of these awards came with a significant cash grant that Allen used to develop Growing Power Programs.  Growing Power also received a one million dollar grant from the Walton Foundation.  In 2012 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Agriculture by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  He is the co-author of The Good Food Revolution:  Growing Healthy Food, People and Communities, a book that tells his story in depth.

Here is a Tavis Smiley interview with Will Allen:  

Urban Agriculture

Milwaukee is only one facet of a vast urban agricultural movement.  The movement has its roots in World War II Victory Gardens.  Local food played a major part in the founding of the environmental/sustainability movement.  For example, in Seattle, during the 1970s a citizen movement was formed to save the fabulous Pike Street Market and to preserve the numerous small farms in the rapidly expanding suburbs that supplied it.  A thriving community garden movement was launched in Seattle, and the city is now a national hub for sustainability.  Then the threat was urban growth; now the challenge is urban decay.

Urban agriculture occurs on three levels:  the enterprise level of small farms and markets within or immediately surrounding the city, community gardens, and home gardens.  There are also numerous social organizations that develop, support and maintain urban foods. 

Urban agriculture is defined as growing food for a city within the city.  A city is by definition a large, permanently settled place.  From here the question gets to be something like the number of angles on a pin.  The US Census defines “urban areas” as places of 50,000 or more people.  Outside of urban areas are clusters called “census designated places,” the lower population limit of which is 2,500 people.  Another criteria is 1,000 or more people per square miles.  In 2000 there were 601 places with 50,000 or more people in the US, 238 with 100,000 or more, 29 with a half-million or more.  The group that includes “Forgotten Cities” is in a band of 50,000 to 250,000; there are 534 of these, at least half of which are economically distressed. 

Most cities, we know, consist of multiple municipalities.  These are aggregated into Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (SMSA).   There are 51 SMSAs with a population of 1,000,000 or more in the US, 186 with 250,000 or more.  Outside of these aggregates is land we call “rural,” albeit dotted with bedroom-community developments.

Let us define “urban” agriculture as something that occurs within or immediately adjacent to a place with at least tens of thousands of people.  Further that it produces food locally for local consumption, by and for individuals, families and urban homesteaders, and by small farms in or immediately adjacent to the population center.  These foods may be produced for sale and barter and for food banks and other social agencies.

Prior to globalization cities had personalities.  They were places where people felt they belonged and identified with.  Over about the last third of a century cities, and particularly suburbs, have been increasingly homogenized.  Most cities and towns have lost much of their local character, and they have lost the sense of place.  Many have gone downhill; they have lost population, the people remaining are aging, businesses abandoned and revenues declining.  Residential and commercial property has gone vacant.  If there is a poster child for urban decay, Detroit has a claim on that title.


Detroit is the thirteenth largest SMSA in the US with a population of 4,300,000 and the 18th largest city with a population of just over 700,000.  Detroit stands out in the history of US industrial might as the headquarters of the American automobile industry.  It was founded as a French trading post around 1700.  With the dawn of the industrial age the city grew at an incredible rate.  Just after World War II the population had reached nearly two million.  Following the war we heard: “What is good for General Motors is good for the country,” but globalization devastated the Detroit economy.  It lost nearly two-thirds of its population and is still declining.  Many poorer areas of the city are food deserts; they have no grocery stores. 

Detroit has a lot of vacant land, estimated between 20 and 40 square miles, some 200,000 parcels.  There are at least 10,000 acres that could be converted to urban food.  That transformation has already started.

Agrarian reengagement in Detroit is not just a home and garden club level of activity.  It has taken on the force of a community-scaled project with some degree of support from the city, local universities – support which, as we will see, can be a mixed blessing - nonprofits and thousands of residents.  Here are some of these efforts:

Greening of Detroit is a nonprofit organization founded in 1989.  Its original mission was planting trees.  Today:  “Every year, the garden resource program contributes farming resources and educational opportunities to over 15,000 urban gardeners, supporting over a thousand gardens in Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park.”  It supports hands-on training and education, green workforce development, and supplies technical assistance.

Greening of Detroit did not start all of the community gardens.  Those gardens evolved through a number of local efforts over the last ten or more years as residents sought to not only raise some of their food but also rebuild their neighborhoods.  And not all of these local gardening efforts are tiny projects.  For example, Detroit Black Food Security Network (DBCFSN) supports a seven-acre farm.  In 2006 they started with ¼ acre and used the “lasagna garden” method to build the soil.  The following year they secured another ½ acre.  Losing that site, they moved to a two-acre plot in 2008 and continued to expand thereafter.  They prepared beds, planted, organized watering, did pest manage­ment, set work schedules, found crew leaders, and installed hoop houses.  They formed a co-op, partnered with Growing Power, and formed the Food Warriors Youth Development Program that started in three local schools to inspire and train young people to become involved in developing local food security.

DBCFSN’s objective is to “form a coalition of organizations and individuals working together to build food security in Detroit’s Black community by: 1) influencing public policy; 2) promoting urban agriculture; 3) encouraging co-operative buying; 4) promoting healthy eating habits; 5) facilitating mutual support and collective action among members; and 6) encouraging young people to pursue careers in agriculture, aquaculture, animal husbandry, bee-keeping and other food related fields. (

Michigan State University saw the Detroit urban agriculture movement as a great game to get into.  Just this year they wrote a plan to invest $500,000 over three years into a program called Metro Food Plus Innovation Cluster.  MSU wants to make Detroit a world leader in urban agriculture, or, in their own words, to pursue two goals: To spark innovation in food, energy and water systems development to help feed and sustain the world's urban residents, and to use some of Detroit's vast inventory of vacant and abandoned land and buildings for new economic development.  They plan to start with eight to ten acres and propose to expand to a 100-acre campus and a $100 million investment.

And, yes, private enterprise is getting into the game, too.  One local investment project secured 175 acres of city-owned land for a private tree farm enterprise.  It is a for-profit business.  They have their eye on 10,000 Detroit acres, pretty much all that is currently available.  Detroit government sees it as good for the economy, but some local community interests find the project problematic.  This is, perhaps, a lesson that success comes with a price.

There is a fine line between cooperative community enterprise and business.  Ideally there should be a balance.  Local food is about local economy and community.  Community is about people first and profit second.  Big business is about profit and has its hidden cost and a large part of the cost can be charged not only to tax breaks, cheap land and other incentives, but also, as we have seen, can impede grassroots efforts to build community, local self-sufficiency and pride.  Detroit will be an interesting laboratory for testing how well these various interests can cooperate.

Earthworks Urban Farm is a faith-based initiative started in 1997 as a Capuchin Soup Kitchen's mission.  The project set out to address “[t]he systemic causes of poverty, broken relationships and a wounded Earth.”  In 2001 Earth works started a project to provide fresh vegetables for low-income families.  Earthworks has seven gardens covering 20 city lots within a two block radius of its headquarters, about 1.5 acres total.  It is certified organic.  They have a greenhouse that produces 350,000 seedlings annually and their own bee farm.  They, too, provide training.

Urban Roots is a documentary that tells some of the story of urban agriculture in Detroit.  Here are more of the untold stories and a more graphic view of community effort in Detroit:  The logo itself makes its own powerful statement. 

Hardwick, Vermont

Switching gears to a rural setting:  Hardwick, in northern Vermont, is a tiny place of 3,200 people that has fallen on hard times with unemployment nearly half again the state average and income a quarter lower.  It went back to its natural resources: good land and good people willing to work to rebuild their community. 

It all started with a small group of local “agripreneurs” who drew on community support to build their businesses.  Three of them took the lead. Vermont Soy expanded a business of making tofu and soy milk from local soy beans by 100-fold.  Jasper Hill Farm created an aging cave for cheese, with milk from their own and other dairies.  Pete’s Greens worked with 30 local farmers to market their produce. Pete set up hoop houses to extend its growing season to nine months.

Locals created a $300,000 investment loan fund that launched their rural renaissance and a resurgence of the economy.  One reporter called it “the Hardwick Miracle.”  Local business owners share facilities and advice.  A hundred or more new jobs were created. 

Soon came a community-supported restaurant created by fifty investors each putting up $1,000.  There are now bakeries, milk and cheese production, vineyard and distillery, a goat dairy, grass-fed beef and pork, brewery, eco-friendly furniture varnish, a major composting business, a seed grower and nursery, organic vegetable gardens, orchards, local artisans, a co-op that has over 1,000 members.  There is a year-round farmers’ market.  Hardwick is now a food hub that serves eight nearby communities, a local trade area of 8,000 people.  It is an official Transition Town.

The Center for an Agricultural Economy (Web Site:, Blog: was founded by Hardwick leaders to provide education and other support for the local farm economy.  Sterling College, a tiny four-year college just north of Hardwick, offers degrees in sustainable agriculture, food systems and related topics.

Hardwick may be a small place but its story is far too big to be told here.  You can find more information at the links in the paragraph above.  Ben Hewitt ( wrote about the growth of this local food economy in The Town That Food Saved:  How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food.


Vermont has a great reputation for sustainability.  There is a remarkable level of work going on there.  It retains that sense of Yankee independence and inventiveness.  The state has a smaller population than the City of Detroit.  The largest town in Vermont, Burlington, sixty miles west of Hardwick, has less than 42,000 residents.  At Burlington is another highly regarded local food movement project called “Intervale.”

We should take note that the growing season in Vermont, particularly in the north, is not very long.  That makes the story of Hardwick and Burlington all the more compelling.

Intervale was founded on a 700-acre flood plain and former dumping ground immediately north of Burlington.  In 1986, Will Raap, founder of Gardeners Supply Co., got permission from local government and began clearing land at Intervale.  In 1988 a major composting facility was founded.  The year after, Vermont’s first CSA was located there, and develop­ment of the local food program has accelerated from then.  Now thirteen independent farms operate at Intervale on land leased from the Intervale Center.  The Intervale local food hub includes a total of 28 farms.  They produce more than 500,000 pounds of food each year.  The folks of Burlington have an immediate goal of producing ten percent of their food locally

Intervale has established a set of principles that apply to the local food movement at large.  These include:
  •            Fresh, tasty food produced locally (within 75 miles) from heirloom varieties
  •            Support for local farmers in terms of strong and stable local markets and profitability
  •            Food dollars re-invested into the local economy
  •            Fair prices for buyers
  •            Land stewardship and standards of quality
  •           Buyers understanding how their food is produced
  •           Sound sustainable and economic growing of predominately certified organic food
  •           Convenient local access to food
  •           Food security:  Fresh, local food accessible by all members of the community
  •           Community wellbeing

 You can learn more about Intervale and the Burlington local food movement at this link:

Path to Freedom

Let’s flash travel to the Pacific, to Pasadena, CA, where we find an example of intensive urban agriculture on one very small urban lot.  Pasadena is a suburb of Los Angeles, the second largest SMSA in the US and the third largest economic center on the planet.

On one diminutive (66 by 132 feet) urban lot a family of four has created a homestead that produces 6,000 to 7,000 pounds of food per year on just half the lot (1/10th acre).  This is Path to Freedom.  They raise over 350 varieties of vegetables and herbs.  They engage in simple home living, raise most of their own food, do craft work, keep bees and have a front porch farm stand.  They make compost, preserve their food and bake their own bread.  They have a variety of small animals, produce thousands of eggs, and raise fish.  They produce their own power and their own biofuel.  They conduct events and workshops.  They have a blog ( and newsletter.

Jules Dervaes homesteaded in New Zealand and Florida before moving to Pasadena in 1985 where he bought and refurbished an old bungalow and started his urban homesteading enterprise.  The family seeks not only to provide for themselves, but to inspire others to live as they do, simply, in harmony with both nature and themselves and in the here and now. 

Their vision of the change we must have now is nothing short of revolutionary, that the future will be a tremendous struggle because we have not learned to live rightly, that our lives must move beyond the quick fix to a sound, permanent, holistic form.  There is much of the spirit of a modern, yet very urban, Thoreau in this family and a pronounced fragrance of Buddha.

There is a wealth of additional information at the Path of Living web site:

I might note that Los Angeles has its own urban farming movement.  There are 70 community gardens in the city, and a list of some 60 CSAs, co-ops, farmers’ markets and related organizations and activities can be found on the internet. 

Transition Towns and Local Foods

It makes good sense that a Transition Town project starts with local foods.  TT founder Rob Hopkins is a permaculture teacher.  In 1996 he wrote a BSc dissertation for a degree in Environmental Quality and Resource Management that looked at models for sustainable development in the UK using permaculture.[1]

In an article, “Powerdown and Permculture,” Hopkins tells his own story, beginning in 1992, when he completed the Permaculture Design Course.  He was inspired by permaculture founder Bill Mollison’s assertion that “the best thing we can do in the face of ecological crisis is to buy some land with like minded friends, build a house, grow your food, harvest your timber and so on. “ Since then, Hopkins relates, he has tried to dedicate his life to implementing these principles.  “This vision of ‘fetching wood, carrying water’ and living by example was very powerful for me.”
After finishing his degree, Hopkins moved to rural Ireland, to Kinsale, where he found only two gardens.  There he taught permaculture and spent four years helping to develop an ecovillage project.  He built an energy-efficient cob home using local materials.  “I was making steps towards the rural self-reliant version of permaculture living,” he reported.  He had an important awakening of another form:  Peak Oil.  Becoming aware of the growing scarcity of petroleum and the profound impact that will have on society and the economy, Hopkins mobilized his Kinsale students to develop an “Energy Descent Action Plan” as a model to move communities towards dramatically less dependence on fossil fuels and greater local sustainability.  That plan was adopted by the local council.

You may be surprised to learn that many of the principles of sustainable living were developed a full century or more ago in the US.  Hopkins’ model is consistent with principles that were once popular in America.  For example, the idea of land plus labor equals wealth came from nineteen century American economist Henry George.  The Georgist movement, part of the American Populist movement, mobilized a twentieth century back-to-the-land movement that included pioneers Ralph Borsodi, founder of The School of Living and several homesteading communities, who in turn inspired notable homesteaders such as Scott and Helen Nearing and others at mid-century.  The ideals of the back-to-the-land movement helped launch the communal movement of the sixties.  Transition Town is reawakening the back-to-the-land movement in the twenty-first century.  It takes the movement to a new level.

To George’s law (land plus labor equals wealth) Hopkins added the knowledge of permaculture and his own creative talent in community building.  From Kinsale he moved to Totnes, in southern England, where he started the first Transition Town and a movement that has now spread around the world.

The goal of the Transition Towns program is that each community will develop its own Energy Descent Action Plan.  These plans, as exemplified by Transition in Action (see review at, characteristically start with a strong emphasis on the local food system and the development thereof.  Tamzin Pinkerton and Rob Hopkins published Local Foods:  How to Make it Happen in Your Community, in 2009.  The book provides an encyclopedic catalog of local food projects.

There are 120-plus official Transition Towns in the US and these can provide the foundation for and help develop local food systems.  A New School of Living is also being founded, based on the principles developed by Ralph Borsodi, which will provide the knowledge, skills and psychological preparation to not only establish a strong local homesteading movement but to provide the culture for a vibrant local community.  The Forgotten and Distressed Community Project focuses on those communities that are prime candidates for developing a new, local and sustainable economy.

Bill Sharp
Central Pennsylvania
September 2012

[1] Permaculture is a body of knowledge and practices drawn from organic farming, systems ecology, sustainable land use, and related topics.  The practice is based on twelve design principles that start with careful observation and interaction with the land you live on.  It observes topography, sun, wind, rainfall, seasonal patterns and a host of other things Thoreau and other great naturalists would have been familiar with and which the rest of us, jaded by urban-industrial life, can learn.  Permaculture is not just a way of growing food but also improves the quality of the soil – a positive way of building assets, of wealth in terms of more than dollars.  The three basic tenets are:  Care for the land, care for people and sharing the abundance we can create by right natural living.
  Permaculture is based on sound ecological principles.  A community is also an ecology and is, in a real sense, not essentially different than the ecology of a forest.  Hopkins incorporated Permaculture principles and practices into his Transition Towns model.  This is one of the great powers I find in the model.  By consciously using these principles and practices we grow not only food and preserve the land but bring our community ecology to life.