GALESBURG (AP) — Matt Wallen is 23 years old.
That explains his wide-eyed enthusiasm, willingness to wear shorts while working outside in the beginning of February and — some might say — his seeming idealism.
The soft-spoken Wallen explained his decision to take on the role of lead farmer in Galesburg's latest nonprofit corporation and first large-scale urban farming effort, Growing Together Inc., in other terms.
"My mom had this boyfriend who had a composter in the backyard," said Wallen, who grew up in Good Hope. "And I would go out there with him and it was kind of cool to crank it and have him explain to me what he was doing.
"Then the day came that he reached in there and pulled out this black gold. It was the most beautiful soil I'd ever seen. It was just incredible."
The boyfriend didn't stay around, but he left behind the composter and an indelible impression on Wallen.
"The idea of soil creation led me to want to understand natural systems and an appreciation for the beauty of nature's systems. Eventually that all led me to the desire to help people while I get my hands dirty."
While a student at Western Illinois University, Wallen's passion for soil and growing food led him to Will Allen's book "The Good Food Revolution" and Allen's urban farming Growing Power project in Milwaukee, Wis.
Along the way Wallen came in contact with Dr. Peter Schwartzman — and as fate would have it, Schwartzman had an audacious idea that was right up Wallen's alley.
Besides being chairman of the Environmental Studies Department at Knox College, Schwartzman serves on the Galesburg City Council and has a history of community-based projects aimed at protecting the environment and educating Knox County's residents about energy and food options.
Schwartzman founded The Center, helped start the Knox Prairie Community Kitchen and started a number of neighborhood gardens on property he purchased throughout Galesburg. But the professor had bigger plans.
After Doug Ball bought the Fifth Street property formerly known as Holy Rosary Abbey, Schwartzman approached him about leasing 3 acres of unused land to turn into an urban farm. Ball climbed aboard the idea and Schwartzman was off and running.
Following Allen's Milwaukee model, Schwartzman formed a nonprofit corporation and reached out to community members to form a board of directors. He tapped David Hays as president, Terry Haywood as vice president, John Hunigan as treasurer and Carolyn Hawes as a board member.
Schwartzman simply networked with other community activists he met over the years.
"I didn't know Peter all that well," Haywood said. "But I took students to the Bioneers Conference and I always ran into him at the Youth Commission and at community events.
"He started talking to me about urban farming. He impressed me because I knew it was a project he had taken on before and I liked his ambitions. He asked me to knock on doors. So that's what I'm doing."
And Schwartzman asked Wallen to come as Growing Together Inc.'s lead farmer. He said the 23-year-old understands the kind of scope Schwartzman envisions for the project.
"Matt is here right now as unpaid employee," Schwartzman said. "He turned down a job offer in Hawaii to take this job — because he believes in urban farming, alternative food systems and changing the way this community sees itself in the effort to grow food locally."
The short-term goal of Growing Together Inc. is simple. Wallen, Schwartzman and the rest of the project's leaders and supporters want to grow, sell and distribute locally grown foods to the community.
And they want to involve the community volunteers and, eventually, a paid staff.
"We have the best land in the world," Schwartzman said. "Seriously. The land here is beautiful and you can grow food. But think about this: Of the food grown here, very little is ever consumed here.
"We want to change that. We want to show people that we can grow food in Galesburg that stays in Galesburg. We want to show people that it's healthy, better for the environment and better for the community."
In a news release, Growing Together Inc. issued a kind of mission statement: "Galesburg and many towns in the surrounding area suffer from significant underemployment and food security issues. Yet, at the same time, local soil is the richest in the world. And thousands of acres of land — several hundred within the city limits — have potential for the cultivation of fruits and vegetables year round. By linking the two together, providing the requisite skills, and promoting the necessary enthusiasm and fortitude, GTI will encourage local people to put innovative agricultural strategies to work as a way to support themselves, their families and our community."
At its core, Growing Together Inc. isn't just about growing food for the farmers' market, local restaurants and to be distributed at local food pantries. Schwartzman envisions a kind of paradigm shift.
"You cannot overstate the social benefits urban farming can bring to a community," Schwartman said. "We're talking about exercise, social interaction, the opportunity to teach kids where their food comes from.
"We're talking about people learning to cook differently with diverse ingredients. Maybe people will want to learn how to can fruits and vegetables. People think that eating local is sacrificing — but we can show that it's retooling, reconsidering and maybe revisiting old ways that worked before globalization."
Wallen said he isn't interested in telling people they shouldn't buy their favorite fruit in January from a grocery store.
"What we can do is replace some of what people eat with food that is grown locally," Wallen said. "People would be surprised about the diversity of foods we can grow. We think of corn and soy as local produce — but we could go much further and meet a lot of the needs of the people who live in this community."