It may not be what you think.
The most common description of Will Allen is “urban farmer.” But the description doesn’t do Allen justice. It’s like describing Woody Guthrie as “1930s folksinger.” Or Walter Mosley as “mystery writer.”
Yes, Allen runs a small farm in the central city of Milwaukee. But there’s far more to this former professional basketball player turned corporate marketing executive turned head of the internationally respected nonprofit Growing Power.
And it’s not what the fifty-nine-year-old Allen has accomplished thus far that earned him a $500,000 “genius” award in September from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. It’s the expectation of what Allen will yet achieve as he promotes organic farming in urban areas known more for blight and decay than good soil and nutritional food.
“This person is going to do some marvelous things for us all,” Daniel Socolow of the MacArthur Foundation said in explaining Allen’s selection. “This is a man of enormous talent and commitment, energy and vision. Just watch him.”
It starts with a scrappy farm, less than three acres, in one of Milwaukee’s most economically depressed neighborhoods. But, as the name Growing Power suggests, it by no means ends there.
“The movement I am part of is growing food and justice,” Allen stresses in an interview, “and to make sure that everyone in the world has access to healthy food.”
Walk with Allen around the Milwaukee farm and it’s clear he has the good fortune to love his job. He fondly scratches the heads of his favorite turkeys. He digs his hands in dirt and gives it a good smell. He walks over to the fish farming operations and grabs some lake perch with a net to see how they’re doing.
“I am a farmer first, and I love to grow food for people,” says Allen.
Dressed in his working uniform of a sweatshirt, blue jeans, and baseball cap, Allen playfully throws some soil at visiting filmmakers doing a documentary on Growing Power. “You’re like a little kid who just likes to play in the dirt,” I tease him.
Allen laughs, because he knows it’s true. He picks up a pitchfork to throw some more dirt, then stops to think. “Well, a little bit more than that,” he says with a chuckle.
The son of a sharecropper in the Washington, D.C., area, the six-foot-seven-inch Allen got a scholarship to become the first African American basketball player at the University of Miami back in 1967. He went on to play pro ball, mostly in Europe, and for a time lived on a small farm in Belgium.
When the Allen family came back to the United States, they settled just south of Milwaukee, where his wife’s parents had farmland. He started farming, but knew he couldn’t raise a family that way, not in Wisconsin in the 1970s when family farms were going bankrupt right and left. He entered the business world and, ironically, was a district manager for Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in the Milwaukee area for almost ten years. He then worked for Procter & Gamble in marketing.
Allen farmed his in-laws’ land in his spare time. In 1993, he took a buyout from Procter & Gamble and bought the farm in Milwaukee’s central city. Located next to an Army Reserve training base and just blocks from one of the city’s largest housing projects, it was little more than a dilapidated farm stand. Its only distinction was that it was the last working farm on city land.
Today, Growing Power has a budget of more than $1 million, with about half its funds from sales and the other half from foundations and government training grants. It employs thirty-five people, works with hundreds of volunteers, and hosts thousands of visitors a year.
It also has a forty-acre farm outside of Milwaukee, and operations in Chicago, including a garden at the Cabrini-Green housing project and urban farms in Grant and Jackson Parks. It sells food to restaurants, co-ops, and local markets. It also offers $16 baskets of fresh fruits and vegetables to feed a family of four for a week. In order to have a healthy variety of fruits and vegetables for the market baskets all year, Growing Power works with farmers from around the country.
For many people, urban farming conjures up stereotypes of aging hippies or tofu-loving vegans. Growing Power, however, reaches out across the economic and cultural spectrum, from high-end restaurants to central city senior citizens on limited budgets to, yes, vegetarians and vegans.
“It is intentional that the products are available to everyone, including people with limited incomes,” says Sharon Adams, a Growing Power board member and a founder of a neighborhood association in Milwaukee’s central city.
Francesca Dawson, a single working mother of two children in Milwaukee’s central city, is a regular buyer of Growing Power’s market baskets. For years, she has bought two half-size “senior” baskets—one for her family and one for her elderly parents. “It’s a nice combination of fruits and vegetables,” she says of the baskets. “I may get peaches or nectarines, or some sweet potatoes along with white potatoes. They change it up every now and then, and I like that.”
At the other end, meanwhile, chefs at fancy restaurants buy from Growing Power, attracted by the high-quality taste of freshly delivered, chemical-free food.
“They are wonderful people and do some interesting things that fit in with what we are trying to do,” says Paul Kahan, the chef and managing partner of the award-winning Chicago Blackbird restaurants. “We buy regular produce, such as tomatoes, but they do some things in particular that we really love: pea tendrils, baby beet greens, nasturtiums, baby mustard greens.”
And then there are Will’s “disciples”—people who buy soil from Growing Power, take some basic lessons on urban farming, and start thinking the unthinkable. People like Erik Lindberg.
The owner of Community Building and Restoration in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood, Lindberg bought ten cubic yards of compost from Growing Power last spring and built a year-round rooftop garden, complete with a greenhouse. A lot of people, including his parents, thought he was crazy.
“But I grew just about everything imaginable,” Lindberg says, rattling off a long list of vegetables from corn to sweet potatoes to squash and tomatoes. He had so much that he started selling produce to neighborhood co-ops. And he hasn’t been stopped by the Wisconsin weather; he’s growing kale and spinach this winter.
“What Will provided, in addition to the soil, was the notion that things are possible,” Lindberg says. “For a certain group of people, Will’s knowledge has seeped into common knowledge.”
Which is just fine with Allen.
“We are growing not only food but growing community and shared power in a very multigenerational, multicultural way,” Allen says.
In the process, he’s fighting injustice.
“Racism is in all aspects of our lives, whether it is food or medicine or politics,” Allen says, branching into a topic not usually associated with farming. “Poor neighborhoods in the cities, especially with people of color, are food deserts.”
The only access to food in these deserts are fast-food operations and corner grocery stores filled with cigarettes, beer, potato chips, and processed foods, Allen notes. He wants to build a new reality—“to make sure that everyone has access to the same healthy food, regardless of color, religion, how much money you have, whatever.”
From the outside, Growing Power’s headquarters looks like an economically marginal farm in need of a good paint job and top-to-bottom cleaning. There is a small barn (red, of course), and six greenhouses and eight hoophouses for greens, herbs, and vegetables. There are also goats, ducks, chickens, turkeys, and beehives.
On closer inspection, it’s clear that the farm is anything but ordinary. There are the endless stages of composting, including worm beds. “It’s all about the soil,” he says.
To protect the soil’s quality, Growing Power makes its own compost and takes donations of waste such as eggshells, coffee grounds, and vegetable matter (no dairy products, meat, bones, or sauces). It transforms six million pounds of food waste a year and enriches the compost with worms that eat through the compost and create worm castings.
The end result, Allen says, “is the highest quality fertilizer in the world.”
Allen is equally concerned with energy independence and sustainability. One of the greenhouses has been transformed into an experimental lab turning food wastes into acetic acid that, if Allen’s dreams come true, will one day be used not only for fertilizer but to produce methane gas and promote energy independence.
“We grow soil, we grow energy, we grow food, we grow community,” he says.
“Now we’re having to go back to those days when people shared things and took care of each other,” Allen continues. “That’s the only way we will survive. And what better way to do it than with food?”
Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee-based journalist.