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This article appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet. Here is the link:

Digging into urban farming at U of M

by Dusty Hinz and Lydia Howell

Cities of the future may include widespread urban farming, beekeeping and a locally-grown fish industry.

April 19th the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus hosted a forum on urban agriculture. Robert Jones, U of M professor of agronomy and plant genetics, led the discussion. Featured were Will Allen, Milwaukeeurban farming pioneer and Senior Fellow in Agricultural Systems at the U of M and Marla Spivak, a 2010 MacArthur Fellow and U of M professor of entomology, specializing in bees.

Ms. Spivak grew up in Denver and found her calling at 18, working for a commercial beekeeper. Her work has centered on the disastrous collapses in bee colonies (Colony Collapse Disorder) of the last three years, which she states are the result of bee nutrition (“the amount of flowers that bees have to feed on”), pesticides (“that we apply everywhere in urban and agriculture environments”), and bees’ own diseases.

As a result of the decimation of bee populations, she wants to create a “Bee Squad.” Modeled on something like the Geek Squad, its mission is aiding urban beekeepers to restore health to bees, which are crucial to human agriculture and plant ecosystems.

“Bees are telling us to wake up,” Spivak said. “They’re small, we’re big. We have to listen.”

One optimistic point she noted is that First Lady Michelle Obama put two beehives in the organic garden on the White House lawn.

Will Allen is the son of African-American sharecroppers, who went off to college on an athletic scholarship and played for the NBA. After his pro-sports career, he returned to his roots, buying the last farm inside Milwaukee’s city limits.

Headquartered there (with projects also in Chicago), Growing Power isAllen’s non-profit that is expanding urban farming. He is creating economic development and now employs 60 people from diverse backgrounds.

“We have three goals: growing farmers, growing soil and growing community.” They aim to transform cities through development of Community Food Systems.

He strongly emphasized the importance of composting, the process of growing new topsoil, as an urgent priority.  Industrial agricultural techniques have made today’s soil 50 per cent less fertile than in 1950.

Allen asserted that the new urban farmer will be “highly skilled.” One skill is aquaponics, or fish farming. He believes that 50-75% of fish could be grown locally for local consumption. He also said, that to produce the food this country needs with strictly organic and non-industrial methods, 50 million people would need to be working in some aspect of farming.

In a time of high unemployment and the continued exporting of U.S. jobs,Allen sees real economic impact in an urban farming renaissance.

“An integrated food system means many things. Renewable energy. Architects and designers for housing changes. Nutritionists,” he said. “Hundreds of categories, thousands of jobs.”

He was pleased to see, that from his perspective, some universities are heading in the direction of sustainable, organic food practices and research. “Universities have an important role,” he said.

But, one significant challenge to universities’ role in urban farming may be that multinational Big Ag corporations — such as Cargill — are major funders to universities’ agricultural departments, including U of M.  Industrial food producers have put up obstacles to food labeling in terms of additives or organics, promoted genetically modified vegetables and tried to stop the centuries’ old tradition of farmers “seed saving.”

“But, students are developing gardens on campus–where there’s lots of vacant land. A sustainability degree program is beginning, too” Allen said. “The best policy change is having a successful model to show.”

Spivak added that there’s also now a U of M, St. Paul campus farmers market.

How should urban agriculture activists, like Allen, interact with the current industrial food system? Allen believes in working with corporations if there are tangible benefits.

For example, Mr. Allen wanted to sell their locally produced food to Milwaukee Public Schools. But Sysco, one of our nation’s massive industrial food corporations, said not so fast: due to contractual agreements they are the sole food supplier. Mr. Allen and Growing Power had to partner with Sysco to get their produce distributed to local schools.

In such a situation, the principled idealist might argue that Mr. Allenshould not even deal with Sysco: that by doing so he is legitimizing a corporation that many view as the problem.

“We can’t be so idealistic as to inhibit our ability to help communities,”Allen countered. “We found a way to work with [Sysco].”

Two audience members asked: how can the competing interests of industrial food systems and the new wave of smaller scale, organic and sustainable methods be reconciled in the 2012 farm bill?

“Reduce money being put into commodities, which just props up a doomed agricultural system. Take 30% and put that money into sustainable agriculture,” Allen said.

In any event, Will Allen prefers action: “We can’t just sit at the table and talk about it…Food is one thing that connects us all.”

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