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Turning Milwaukee into a Garden

How urban farmers are transforming the city

May. 16, 2017
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Whether people are growing their own food in gardens in their own back yards or in community gardens in vacant lots, urban farming is improving the lives of thousands in Milwaukee. Urban gardeners are growing fresh produce by the ton. Along the way, they have become knowledgeable about agriculture and farming entrepreneurship, while eating well, getting to know each other better and improving their neighborhoods. 

For example, since 2007, Groundwork Milwaukee has helped transform nearly 100 vacant lots into community gardens and public spaces. Since 2008, the Victory Garden Initiative has installed about 3,500 raised beds in greater Milwaukee, most of them in private yards. All Peoples Church has been farming a city lot for 20 years, but has greatly expanded its growing capacity in the past four years. 

“We used to think, we would reach a saturation point,” says Gretchen Mead, founder and executive director of the Victory Garden Initiative. “But every year more people buy our gardens,” during the Victory Garden Blitz in May. During the Blitz, volunteers install raised beds for gardeners. Mead says that the increasing income disparity between the rich and poor may be a driving force behind the popularity of urban gardening along with a new awareness about health issues related to processed food.

Mead grew up in rural Illinois. She started farming in the front yard of her Shorewood home because she needed to reconnect with her rural roots. She believes that many urban dwellers are cut off from the land, and that farming is good for the soul.

“It’s just part of our humanity,” she says. “We have been agriculturists for generations and generations. Farming is part of our evolutionary history. It’s kind of like if you cut off a dog’s tail, they don’t wag, and they just seem a little less dog.”

Antoine Carter is program director at Groundwork Milwaukee, a program developed by the National Park Service with programs in 23 cities. Groundwork Milwaukee helps groups that want to establish a community garden to get started. Sometimes residents want to plant orchards or create pocket parks in addition to gardens. Groundwork Milwaukee helps with building raised beds and offers basic agricultural instruction. It also helps the group realize its unique vision for developing the community. 

“Because the availability of vacant lots has increased, the number of beds has increased,” Carter says. “It has provided a unique opportunity for people to transform their neighborhoods and to provide little niches that provide checkpoints.” 

He adds that Groundwork goes beyond growing food and is the first point of contact for any group wanting to start a project. Carter can help a group with its programming and find volunteer yoga or Zumba instructors or can connect groups to cooking and canning classes. Recently, Groundwork Milwaukee partnered with True Skool, which teaches knowledge through hip-hop lyrics. They commissioned young people to design and paint 20 Little Free Libraries, which are currently being installed in the community gardens. 

Carter estimates some 10,000 people actively participate in the planting and maintenance of the gardens. Groundwork Milwaukee figures that more than 200,000 people benefit from their projects and programs. 

The gardens are self-sufficient.  Many have simple rainwater harvesting systems, which help with storm water runoff and provide a free source of water for the beds. Farmers are taught simple irrigation practices. Some spaces have rain or pollinator gardens. Groundwork Milwaukee has planted almost 6,000 shrubs and trees and close to 30,000 bulbs and perennials in public lots or residential rain gardens. When there is a bounty of produce in summer, some gardens turn into mini farmers’ markets and sell to local residents.              

“That brings other people to the garden who may not have wanted to grow the food, but they will pay for the food,” Carter says. “They can buy right around the corner.”

Gardening can have a beneficial effect on the economy of a household. “In the middle of the season when your cup runneth over with tomatoes and everything, I would say you save hundreds of dollars,” Carter says. 

Groundwork Milwaukee runs Young Farmers, a program to teach healthy habits through entrepreneurship. Starting at 10, the children tend a garden bed. They then either sell the produce at a farmers market or through a CSA, gaining customer service and inventory skills in the process.

Carter says the benefits of urban gardening include physical activity and de-stressing. “It helps you get purpose in life,” he says. Community gardens provide a site for a lot of social interaction. The spring cleanup, the summer barbecues and the harvest fest all take place at the garden. “You throw in an art project and that really brings people together,” Carter says. “A garden really just creates those areas of intersection among those people who fly by night and never talk to each other. Residents come to the garden, and they’re like, ‘I didn’t know this was going on.’ They meet someone new and they get into the groove.” Carter is working now to create clusters among nearby gardens to enhance communication and teamwork. 

All Peoples Church at Second and Clarke streets has had a community garden for 20 years. “I like to say we gardened before it was cool to garden,” says Susan Holty, a volunteer, who manages the community garden. The All Peoples Church garden has 34 raised beds, two hoop greenhouses donated by Growing Power, 50 containers and an extensive rainwater harvesting system, along with apple, pear, plum and cherry trees. Around the perimeter of the property are blackberry and raspberry bushes.

Like Groundwork Milwaukee, the church has a program for children called Kids Working to Succeed. Last year 150 children participated in the program.

The program starts with Bible study. The program teaches the student to develop a good work ethic. They learn not to judge each other, to take care of and be kind to one other. “They have to stick to those rules or they get warnings, and then they can’t work with us,” Holty says.

Last year the garden gave more than 800 pounds of produce to local residents. The garden also distributed 8,000 ears of corn, donated by a farmer who didn’t want to plow under his crops.  Holty says she hopes to develop more relationships like this with other farmers.

“The community is just amazing,” she says. “They want to come together. They want to eat good food. They want to teach each other. They want to remember their history, their cultures. For all that they say I teach them, they teach me so much more,” she continues. “We are not doing anything for somebody. We’re doing it together.” 

Mead sees a bright future for urban agriculture and hopes to expand her Victory Garden Initiative across the Midwest. Already, the Victory Garden Blitz has trained gardeners in Green Bay, Wis., and Berea, Ky., to do the Blitz. “It can really catalyze food movements within communities. In Milwaukee, I’ve seen how it just emboldened everyone. That was really part of the momentum of it all, where people just claimed it and said, ‘We’re going to grow our own food right here in the city.’”

Urban gardening resources:

Alice’s Garden: 414-687-0122; alicesgardenmke.com

Groundwork Milwaukee: 414-763-9947; groundworkmke.org

Growing Power: 414-527-1546; growingpower.org

Home Gr/own Milwaukee: 414-286-3748; homegrownmilwaukee.com

Milwaukee County UW Extension: 414-256-4664; milwaukee.uwex.edu

The Urban Ecology Center: 414-964-8505; urbanecologycenter.org

Victory Garden Initiative: 414-431-0888; victorygardeninitiative.org

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