Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Growing Power at the Interfaith Food Shuttle

This week's blog post was originally published in our February 2013 newsletter, contributed by Edward Marshall.

From the moment I'd heard of Growing Power, I wanted to visit. As it turns out, this fall I had the good fortune to attend a Growing Power workshop at Raleigh's Interfaith Food Shuttle, an urban farm site minutes from I-40 and the capital's downtown. Situated in a former industrial warehouse with approximately an acre or more of land, the location's proximity to consumers and markets was beset with the pollution issues of its past history and location.

Growing Power was started by Will Allen, a recent McArthur Genius Award winner who has created a revolutionary way of producing a bounty of farm fresh produce, fish, eggs, and compost in the shadows of Milwaukee, Wisconsin's housing projects. There's a plethora of press on this farmer, his techniques, and his Growing Power non-profit, and I highly recommend a virtual tour of his urban 2-acre operation for inspiration.

This weekend conference by Interfaith Food Shuttle was organized around the need to get their production up and running, with intensive on-site composting facilities, a 40' x 100' greenhouse, vermiculture bins, an aquaponics system, and specialty mushroom production.

Will Allen himself was on hand to jumpstart these systems. Aware of the pitfalls and solutions of raising food in the cities, especially the hazards of what lies in the soil, Allen knows that one solution is to literally build the soil from the ground up--rather than till down. Here are some highlights mixed in with some how-to's of the Growing Power systems from that weekend.

One other great feature of this conference was that Will Allen's Growing Power was able to bring together 130 people from across North Carolina and assemble them into productive teams. Teams of people worked on the following projects, making their assemblage so much easier for the needs of the Interfaith Food Shuttle. Community is key to successful regenerative farming, and Will Allen's group serves as a great model of farming, of serving the community, and of working together as a community. We achieve so much more through conscious interdependence than by holding onto the myth of ‘going it alone’.


Will Allen likes to refer to Growing Power's earthworms as the best employees of the operation. One feature activity at this conference was to get vermiculture bins going.
Using these biological plows (worms) to eat spoiled produce, digest it, and excrete it as pH neutral fertility is both easy and sheer genius. In fact, when my wife (fellow We Are All Farmers Permaculture  Institute co-founder) and I lived in New York, we had two worm bins in our apartment that silently and without smell turned junk mail (non-glossy and non-color), receipts, and food scraps into beautiful compost.

If you want to know how to get started with vermiculture, it's easy to do, and here's how:

First rescue some 40 gallon+ plastic totes from the waste stream, or, buy some wherever fine plastic totes can be found.

Next, drill 1/4" holes across the bottoms for drainage, and some 1/8" holes 1" down from the tops.

Then, figure out a way to harvest the worm tea that will eventually leach from the bottom of the bins where you drilled the holes. This liquid gold is a fantastic fertilizer that will not burn your plants.
I have my bins perched on top of bricks, with the lid from the first tote placed on the floor below the bricks. Beneath this, I have a small tray that can collect the worm tea. Inside the bins, I layer scrap paper and kitchen scraps, and this is covered with a scrap piece of cardboard. Everything is kept moist like a damp sponge so that the worms can perform their work. New compostables are added as they appear into new areas of the bin, and this mixture is amended with scrap paper, leaves, and a sprinkling of soil to create a hospitable environment. In a few months time you'll notice that the worms will have turned your scraps into a friable black soil that is their castings. You can separate the worms and their egg sacs (tiny little light yellow-brown balls) from these castings and fertilize your seedlings and enrich your gardens.

Will Allen does exactly this, using custom wooden bins, to produce several million pounds of vermicompost annually to grow his custom salad mixes and sell as fertilizer.


At the workshop, Will Allen discussed the merits of building your garden soil on site, as all urban areas must assume that the ground they are working with is heavily contaminated. However, this is not a problem when you intervene in the urban waste stream, intercepting compostables such as spoiled produce and lawn clippings free of pesticides, mulch materials such as leaves and wood chips, and cardboard. These are used in various ways to build rich garden soils.

Here is how to make easy compost bins:

Gather recycled pallets.

Line with 1/4" hardware cloth to keep out rodents.
Screw the pallets together with carpentry screws to build a box from the ground up.
Mix spoiled produce with dry carbonaceous materials such as leaves, straw, or finely ground wood chips at a ratio of 1 part produce to 4 parts carbon, with a layer of compost of soil to top it off.
Repeat this layering process until the pallet box is filled.

At some point, a brave soul needs to climb on top and compress this mass further into the compost bin. It is watered to the state of a wrung out sponge, and a final pallet with hardware cloth is fastened to the top of the compost bin. Then, an adjacent compost bin is started. By the end of the conference there were twenty compost bins set up in the Growing Power tradition. These will be emptied in four to six weeks time into an adjacent empty compost bin, and finished compost that can be spread onto your garden beds should be realized in another four to six weeks time.

Bed Building

Will Allen discussed the importance of growing healthy food in the cities where it is needed most, while acknowledging that the cities' soil was terribly polluted from industry and automobiles. His solution was to build the soil up, and he demonstrated the creation of garden beds that were 36" high, 24" to 36" wide at the top, and that sloped down on the sides. These beds had a pathway that was 20" to 24" wide, and they were about 40' in length. Once you have the recipe, you can build them in any configuration that you want. Here's how.

Start with cardboard or scrap newspaper, and cover the site. This is your biodegradable weed barrier, so you'll want to layer this thickly to keep unwanted additions to your garden from joining the summer party.

On top of this, add several inches of compost. Then, add several inches of carbon, like leaves, leaf mulch, wood mulch, or straw. Then, add more compost. If you are envisioning lasagna, that's the appropriate image to keep in mind.

Now, add some more compost and mulch.

Top your new bed off with a healthy layer of leveled compost on the top.

You'll be able to plant into your new bed and mulch around the plants to conserve moisture and prevent weeds from taking over your hard work. In time, the 36" height will melt down quite a bit, so be prepared to continue enriching your garden beds with new compost. In between these beds are deep layers of wood chips to both cover the cardboard and hold water while suppressing weeds. In my design, I would plan these types of beds on the contour so that the pathways in between could harvest and slowly infiltrate water into the soil and moderate the need for irrigation.


This example of system's thinking has made Growing Power's reputation, through the combination of growing fish in tanks and filtering their waste-laden water through grow beds of high value greens for fertilization of the greens and filtering of the water. It is then returned via gravity to the fish tank. I participated in this workshop, and after going over the biology and economics of this system in the morning, we built it in the afternoon out of treated dimensional lumber and 45 mil pond liner.


We also learned about integrating mushrooms with garden beds as a way to further break down woody materials into garden soil, as a way to harvest a mushroom crop, and as way to further stack functions into greenhouses. For example, shiitake logs can be suspended above the aquaponic tanks to harvest moisture from the tanks, and produce a valuable crop in an underutilized space. Oyster mushrooms were grown to continue breaking down compostables into valuable garden soils for vegetable production. These mushrooms were also grown in hanging chandeliers that were hung throughout the greenhouse, again harvesting moisture from the fish tanks and producing valuable food in an underutilized vertical space.

Greenhouse building

With the greenhouse building workshops, in two days the Interfaith Food Shuttle had a working 20' x 60' greenhouse where there had previously been vacant industrial soil. All the materials were ubiquitous--parts for chain-link fences, dimensional lumber, electrical conduits, and common construction fasteners. The exceptions would be the UV stabilized greenhouse plastic and the greenhouse cross-bracing hardware for the purloins. Inside, we replicated Will Allen's garden bed construction techniques to create four 36" high garden beds to produce out-of-season produce.


Again, this was a great weekend of community for the cause of increased food responsibility (our preferred term to independence). It was a privilege to witness Allen's work, to work to benefit the Interfaith Food Shuttle, and to hone more of my alternative farming methods.
--Edward Marshall

Edward Marshall is the co-founder and principal instructor of the We Are All Farmers Permaculture Institute in Union Grove, NC. In addition to three free workshops a year for non-profits, the We Are All Farmers Permaculture Institute runs permaculture design courses to foster food responsibility, community, systems design, and alternative skills. Their spring course begins Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sign up for their courses and learn more at, by calling (704) 592 2557, e-mail or by visiting them on Facebook.

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