“Plants are nature’s alchemists, expert at transforming water, soil and sunlight into an array of precious substances, many of them beyond the ability of human beings to conceive, much less manufacture.” - Michael Pollan
Walking though the gate into Victory Garden Initiative's urban farm was like walking through the upstairs wardrobe into Narnia. My guide, a history major originally from Platteville, was a farm manager named Logan McDermott. He details the landscape of the plot that has become his second home. From the pillaged rows of tomatoes to the pesky gopher that has become a frequent visitor, there is more here than you’d expect if you were to just walk by on the street.
“Forget your money, give me food.” - Logan
Logan waves to me dressed in farmer’s formal, walking from VGI’s administrative building which was covered in a large mural. We meet in front of the plot, which is obscured by sunflowers and a steep incline. As a college student living in Milwaukee, locating fresh, much less organic fruits and vegetables can either be impossible or cost an arm and a leg. But for Logan, it’s worth at least a finger. Logan is a former Growing Power employee who now works for VGI. Now aged 27, he quit his old office job to produce food. He says that a lot of his inspiration stems from the time that he spent with his grandfather who worked for John Deere. You can hear the reverence in Logan’s voice when he speaks about his grandfather's work. Rows of leafy greens stretched out before us as he tells me about a recent squash borer issue that he’s been solving without the use of pesticides.
Land, time, and labor are the core of food production. Time is something that Logan, now a Milwaukee resident, is more than willing to give. There are so many benefits of urban agriculture which VGI has gifted the community. Besides encouraging sustainability, they teach local youth how to grow food, and show them how to reduce their carbon footprint in the community. Sustainability at the community level is something that Milwaukee is in desperate need of.
Milwaukee has 33.2% of people living below the poverty level compared to the 15.7% in all of Wisconsin. An astounding 17% of American students are either overweight or obese. Logan, like me, sees the connection clearly on this blue sky day: lack of access to cheap, fresh vegetables impacts the health of our communities. The love that come from the simple act of providing food for others is something that Logan wishes everyone can experience. Urban agriculture, he explains, is not only good for the local economy and sustainability, but fosters a sense of identity and strength of character in a person. Growing food, preparing food, and eating food are the rituals of our daily lives. As a culture we have been spending less time creating the type of meals that our ancestors could easily identify as food.
VGI has been busy in the fallout of the 2017 closure of Growing Power, Milwaukee’s former urban agriculture giant. They recently secured a building for their administrative work and painted a wonderful mural depicting what could be no one else but Mother Earth herself on the side. Their food is accessible to the public in exchange for labor, but if you don’t have time to sweat for your lunch, another service they offer is called Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA. CSA is a service in which you pay one lump sum for the growing season and have a basket prepared for you in a better-than-Blue Apron fashion. They also donate a portion of the fresh produce to local pantries such as the River West Food Pantry.
Despite all the benefits of urban agriculture, Logan mentions some challenges that VGI faces. When he first joined, water access was difficult. He leads me to a short structure that is made of PVC and covered in plastic. I peep inside, where red bricks layer the ground, and turn to Logan. “It’s empty,” he tells me. Because of their zoning designation, they don’t have access to the municipal water supply. Now they have a cistern, which is a big help. Bright blue rain barrels line every other row up until I pass the towering compost pile. If I squint my eyes against the sun I can see short tufts of grass sprouting like an unkempt comb-over.
By the compost pile, Logan explains to me the importance of nutrient balance in soil and mentions that in the compost pile, there is a higher concentration of nitrogen than in regular soil. Logan explains to me the difficulty of maintaining a farm in an urban area, since the biggest issue when growing food anywhere is pests. Squash borers he can handle, but not without losing some zucchini. Logan stresses to me that if you have an understanding of where your food grows, you will live a happier life. Awareness of not only what we eat, but how it finds its way onto our plates is something that draws people, like Logan, to urban agriculture.