Big Will’s Growing Power team have a lot of people with inspiring stories from the early days, as well as stories of their continued work through 2014 and beyond.
In his first Earth Renaissance interview question, Dan shares some of the story of Will’s early days leading Farm City Link, working with K’uu Wamumbu, Sally Leiser,
Clarence Thompson, Heifer’s Allison Mears, a Toronoto aquapon, Brad Blazer, Phil Cerretto, Mike Flynn, Janet Parker, and his earliest Growing Power partner,Hope Finkelstein, with whom he merged Farm City Link.
Dan’s current work is “still on the path of establishing local food systems through the use of high tunnels & greenhouses to extend the growing season and to protect crops from heavy rains…doing sales & marketing for Zimmerman’s High Tunnels, which is a Mennonite-run company that makes what is probably the best value greenhouse (cost and durability wise)in the US. This is the best job that I have ever had.”
Question. You were one of the early supporters of Will Allen’s Growing Power, back, methinks, sometime in the 90s? Might you share the story of how you happened to team up with Will.
Dan Healy. Prior to getting involved with Will Allen, there were some other influences that led me in the direction of wanting to work at something to help establish some momentum for local food systems. First of all my mother grew up on a farm in Iowa and our family would visit farming relatives quite often, which familiarized me with this lifestyle. When I went to college, I read a book by Wendell Berry “The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture which talked about how we need an agricultural outlook in which we are engaged in a reciprocal relationship with the soil. We need to put back nutrients and maintain a top layer of organic matter to better hold moisture during drought conditions and to serve as a food source for the microbes that help make nutrients more available to plants. The gist of the inspiration I received from this book was to move away from the practice of mining the soil on a large scale for the highest return on investment, to one of establishing more small-scale farmers who understand and take good care of the soil.
There are also 2 inspirational lines of a Carl Sandburg poem called “The People, Yes” which goes
“…They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds…”
Much of his writing speaks of his witnessing the effects of the Industrial Revolution and how it pushed out small farmers making way for factory farms, and brought about rapid urbanization.
So to keep this preface short before I started to work with Will, I also received an Ag. Tech diploma from a Technical College in MN that also had a solar greenhouse program run by a person involved in the Cornucopia Project that Rodale Press was promoting for local food systems. Then I went to the Univ of MN to study Soil Science and Horticulture, landing a work-study job in the greenhouses at Como Park Conservatory, which then became a Segway for getting a job as a seasonal gardener for the Milw. County Parks. I then started working in marketing and sales during the time I was laid off from the Parks, and decided to choose that option because there was more potential to earn enough money to afford some farmland.
So one day, I think it was in 1994, I read in the paper about this farmer named Will Allen who wanted to teach youth about growing food and marketing it, so I called him on the phone, and then met him and Karen Parker at the greenhouses he had just purchased at 55th & Silver Spring. We talked about the potential for it becoming a learning center and he invited me to help out. The original name of this venture was called “Farm-City Link” which had barely any money to work with, so we had to be resourceful. The most noticeable need was to fix up the dilapidated greenhouses and figure out how to replace the glass panels with some polycarbonate to make it more energy efficient and lessen the high cost of heating them. The glass was a liability issue and when the panels broke or slid down, the heat would just pour out. There happened to be some greenhouse businesses that were going out of business, so I approached some of them to see if they would want to donate their greenhouses to a non-profit for a tax credit, which they agreed to. Many volunteers helped with the renovation which required a lot of removing glass and scraping & painting the old cypress wood skeleton of the greenhouses. Sally Leiser helped out with getting volunteers to show up, and I met K’uu who helped to bring in some Veterans to help. Clarence (I think his last name was Thompson) from the Youth Conservation Corp also brought in help and insulated the main building. It was a marathon of rolling up sleeves to get the place in order.
Another role that I played was in assisting Will to get the word out about Farm-City Link. Being in marketing, I put together a display of photos and brochures and got Will to get a booth at the Organic Farming Conference which was in Sisinawa, WI near Dubuque. It became obvious that this was a start-up organization that needed to get some grants to keep going, so when I heard about a Community Food Security Conference hosted by The Michael Fields Ag Institute in East Troy, I called them and reserved the last available slot for Will. I nudged him into going and urged him to use his sales experience and speak up about his program, and due to his speaking abilities, he drew the attention of Allison Mears from The Heifer Project, who came to Milwaukee and helped to get some grants and give the program some notoriety. She also brought in an aquaponics person from Toronto to Milwaukee to do a workshop on the very first aquaponics system at the facility.
It was a simple system made by attaching three plastic 55 gallon barrels with PVC piping and epoxy. (The barrels were scavenged from Scrub-a-dub car wash with the help of Brad Blazer). This system was later tweaked and enlarged by Will and Phil Cerretto who built the wood trough system. There were many people who came and went from 1995–2005 when I was involved. The vermiculture system was moved forward with the help of a woman named Jan (I can’t recall her last name), and Mike Flynn. A 70+ year old man named Don Austin who just amazed me by climbing up on the roof was always there helping out. Janet Parker was always there as the glue that held the place together, and Tammy (last name amnesia again) was there for many years also.
Even the Green Bay Packers had a hand in helping to keep Farm-City Link alive. The story behind that is that the sales & marketing job I was working at was selling plaques that commemorated the Super Bowl and World Series Champions, and so when the Packers won in 1996, I donated a good portion of my earnings from those sales to help keep things financially solvent until some other funding came in. I think it was Karen that said they owed some back taxes on the property at the time and were in a precarious situation. The exact year that it became Growing Power is not clear, it may have been close to 2000, and this was because of Hope Finkelstein coming from Madison with this organization called Growing Power already established. Her and Will became co-directors which meant that Farm-City Link was dissolved. Hope and Will later decided to go their separate ways and she moved to Alaska with her husband.
It was an interesting experience to see this organization grow from being almost broke to becoming a grant magnet with much notoriety over the years. I hope that Will can exert enough influence to get some policy changes started with the Federal Gov’t to gain more momentum for local food systems. Also let’s not forget that there are also many CSA growers who are quietly playing a role in training interns to become the farmers of the future.