Urban Farming Pioneer Will Allen is Leading a Food Revolution

He's training a new generation of urban farmers in the shadows of Milwaukee's largest public housing project.
Photo: Getty Images
May 10, 2012
Exec. Prod. of Franchises & Series. He previously reported for HuffPost, L.A. Daily Journal, and Biloxi Sun-Herald.

Will Allen is probably the last person that comes to mind when you think of a farmer. He's a former pro-basketball player-turned-sales executive who lives in Milwaukee. But Allen is one of the pioneers of the urban food movement who is revolutionizing the way local communities grow and consume healthy, fresh, and sustainable food. 

His organization, Growing Power, has gone from being a two-acre plot in the shadows of Milwaukee's largest housing project, to a multi-city, multi-community-farm operation that produces more than forty tons of fresh produce a year and teaches countless students and adults how to become a new generation of urban farmers. Along the way, Allen has won praise from everyone from former President Bill Clinton, to Alice Waters to Joel Salatin. 

He spoke with TakePart about his remarkable story, his vision for reshaping our most disadvantaged communities, and his new book The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities " target="_blank">The Good Food Revolution, which hit store shelves this week.

TakePart: What was the food situation like in your community before you started Growing Power?

Will Allen: There was a void of any good food for about 3 ½ miles east, west, north and south for thousands of people. As a matter of fact a major grocery store, Kohls,  had pulled out of the neighborhood. Which left only McDonald’s and Popeye’s and other fast food places and corner stores.

What would a family have to go through to get fresh produce?

Car rides, bus trips… Many of these families have no cars, and that was the only way to gather food. And many of these families have kids and there is only a single parent. You can only carry so many groceries back home if you have to travel 3 ½ miles.

How did you come across the initial farmland and what sparked you to create what eventually would become Growing Power?

I was already farming for a number of years in Oak Creek — which is about 25-35 minutes away. And I was looking for a place, quite frankly, to sell my farm produce, and the location was a great location. And the situation on the ground was attractive in terms of bringing in healthy fresh food — especially to the African American community that pretty much dominates that area now.

I was driving down the street — I was working for Procter and Gamble in 1993 —and came across the facility that was for sale. I called, found out the city owned it, and long story but I was able to make the purchase.

Who do you work with and what do you do today?

We do about 70 different things, not only locally, regionally, nationally, but also internationally. We’ve gone from me starting out volunteering with youth to starting a nonprofit two years after the purchase, to our situation now where we have over 200 acres of production, 20 different farms around Milwaukee, seven farms in Chicago, and one farm in Madison, Wisc., where we’re building a public school charter school that will be an agricultural school.

Give me an idea of what you produce on these farms. What do the youth grow?

It’s not just youth: we’ve moved to a more multigenerational, multicultural organization. So we work for youth and adults and train over 1000 farmers a year. We grow over 150 products: fruits, vegetables and edible flowers. We have animals, goats for goats’ milk, chickens and layers for eggs — natural eggs. We use worms to create fertilizer. We grow soil because all the soil in our city is contaminated, and so we have a large composting operation on the South Side of Milwaukee. We only grow in new soil. We avoid the contaminants by putting two feet of new soil on top of the existing soil, asphalt, concrete or a rooftop, or grow our food in pots. We have about 25,000 pots at our headquarters that we grow food in.

We also do aquaponics: we raise about 100,000 fish in our fish system. We grow tilapia, lake perch and were doing some research on a South American fish called pacu, which grow up to about 60lbs. They’re just delicious tasting fish.

What would you tell people who are interested in re-creating this experience in their community? What are the biggest challenges for an urban farm like yours?

There are some steps you can’t avoid. One of them is engaging the community, because this is community-based agriculture — it’s not a corporate model. On our farms we have 110 employees now; we’re going to be hiring another 150 in the next year and a half. So we’re able to create thousands of jobs in hundreds of different categories of jobs. That’s important in itself, to be able to come up with an industry today that can create and grow jobs.

What would you tell people who want to get involved with your organization, Growing Power?

One way to get involved with our organization is each month we have about 150-200 people from all over the world come to our facilities to learn these new, old techniques of growing food very intensively — but intensively in a different way than industrial agriculture grows intensive production in large fields. It’s really important to learn the art because this is an art form, but the starting point is to come and get hands-on training because you cant grow a farmer in a classroom. You have to do it on a farm in a very hands-on way.

How does Growing Power fit into your vision of what life after the good food revolution would look like?

The industrial food system, or whatever you want to call it, is not going to go away right away; it’s going to be there. We need to give people choices. One of the goals we’re doing in Milwaukee is to change the existing amount of food from less than one percent of local food to 10 percent. That will have huge implications. That will have less food trucks traveling from far away, from California, Florida, Texas or Arizona and other large vegetable-growing states to a local food system that would create the jobs in different categories of jobs.

What’s the most rewarding part of working on Growing Power?

The most rewarding piece is after all this work, all these years of struggle, not only myself, but other folks in this movement, are seeing what has happened in the last 5 or 6 years where young people have taken over.

I’d say 75 percent of the folks involved in this new industry younger than 40 years of age. That’s a good thing. We’re going to have a new farmer. Not from a rural farming background, but kids who are coming out of college and high school that have been involved in the youth gardening programs around the country.

At one point many African Americans who have suffered from slavery and under Reconstruction in sharecropping didn’t want anything to do with growing food. But I don’t hear that anymore. More people of color and immigrants who lost their farm in their country are coming here and wanting to farm again. It’s been this resurrection of people who want to grow food locally and really be proactive in controlling their destiny. Food is the number one thing in our lives, even though we don’t necessarily look at it or appreciate it that way until we have problems. If we don’t change our food system, we’re slated for bad times. One out of three Americans are obese. I read some statistic this morning in the news that said by 2030, 42% of Americans would be obese. Obesity leads to shorter lives and many diseases, so we need to change our ways.

 Photo: Gotham Books

The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities " target="_blank">Buy The Good Food Revolution at Amazon.com

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