Milwaukee, Wisconsin - though what's called the voluntary sector accounts for about 15 per cent of the goods and services in a modern economy, it's known mainly for its non-ness, as in "non-governmental organizations" or "non-profits."
But here at the annual conference of the Community Food Security Coalition, October 16 to 19, I encounter a a new wave of no-non-ness social entrepreneurs.
These folks aim to finance good works through the sale of products and services, not just through government or foundation grants or charitable donations. The economic map of the future will be dotted with enterprises that look a lot like a project called Growing Power. Toronto needs two, three, many Growing Powers.
A branch of what's called the community food centre movement, Growing Power is a complex of six greenhouses linked to a food retail outlet, commercial kitchen and livestock and beekeeping operation. It sits on the fringes of downtown Milwaukee and employs 19 people - mostly disadvantaged youth receiving skill-training - and manages 100 regular volunteers. It's led by retired pro basketball player Will Allen.
Allen hopes to see such centres sprout across North America and is already making headway in nearby Chicago, the city Toronto is most often compared to. It has a strong track record of implementing T.O.-germinated ideas - from green roofs to living streets to community gardens - that got the bureaucratic brush-off at home.
Allen's shtick involves showing that bootstrap operations can succeed with shoelaces, scraps, found materials, the free energy from gravity, compost and human labour, and grit. He credits his background in pro sports for teaching the importance of team spirit and willpower.
"Anybody tells you this can't be done, you just send them here and we'll show them how," he says. "The most powerful thing about this place is that people can come and see it and leave ready to pick up a shovel and do it.'
The power source for the business is the second greenhouse, which holds the composting operation. Every week it welcomes 8,000 pounds of mash from an organic brewery, a thousand pounds of coffee grounds from local restaurants and tons of fruit and veggies that arrived at local food banks too late to be eaten. The process of composting throws off enough heat to keep the greenhouses warm through Milwaukee's freezing winters.
And the way the compost is managed at Growing Power turns it into a money-maker. Huge bins made from scrap lumber are breeding grounds for tens of thousands of worms that break down the food scraps and produce castings that make top-grade fertilizer and compost every eight weeks.
"I couldn't farm without these worms,' says Allen, a gentle giant of 6 feet, 7 inches, who refers to the little critters he holds lovingly in his oversized hands as his livestock. One bin of vermi-(worm)compost sells for $36,000 when wrapped into 2-ounce compost tea bags called Milwaukee Black Gold and sold to gardeners or in bulk to high-end growers. "It would take a rancher 300 steers to equal the value of my worm livestock,' he says.
His other livestock dominate the fourth greenhouse, where a 4,400-gallon fishing hole is alive with 4,000 tilapia, a small fish that evolved in Africa and Asia to withstand shallow, still waterways. The tilapia take eight months to reach their final weight, about a pound and a half, and live off algae, water lettuce, duckweed (39 per cent protein) and worms, all grown in the complex. When the tilapia do their business, they provide another business opportunity in another greenhouse, where the water with fish manure is mixed with compost tea to fill hydroponic canals and trays that feed a wide range of herbs and greens, including watercress, cilantro, basil, eddo and baby bok choy.
Some 5,000 pots of herbs grow in the enriched water, ready to be sent weekly to local chefs who lease their pots of herbs for $50 a month. "I can teach any group how to do this in a five-hour workshop,' says Allen.
A final greenhouse features raised beds where salad greens are planted thickly along rolling hills. The greens grow year round, require no space between rows and no time off to lie fallow, because their fertility is continually replenished by fresh compost.
Outside the last greenhouse are goats, rabbits, ducks, chickens and bees that produce 700 pounds of honey from the white clover they feed on.
Allen's hope is to demonstrate that a 1-acre plot of land that uses "closed loop' systems to convert all "waste' into resources can provide healthy food basics for a thousand people.
Allen is unique, says Jerry Kaufman, a retired University of Wisconsin professor and one of North America's most distinguished urban planners as well as Growing Power 's president of the board. Allen has a gift for forming partnerships with government and youth agencies, and "he believes that NGOs can't thrive on good intentions and grants,' Kaufman says. Growing Power gets about half its funding from products sold or fees charged for training and workshops.
This non-profit business may well typify a new sector of the economy occupying the space unfilled by capitalist giants, large governments and charities. Such new companies serve public purposes such as enviro protection and training of disadvantaged teens, for example. But unlike the conventional public sector, they use entrepreneurship and improvisation and fly by the seat of their pants the way innovators in the private sector do.
Peter Drucker, the great guru of economic trends, predicted that such firms would become the foundation of a new economy fuelled by knowledge instead of fossil fuels. Projects like Growing Power seem to be exactly what he's talking about.