Will Allen

Milwaukee, WI

Will Allen

As the founder of Milwaukee's Growing Power, Will Allen has become one of the most recognizable names in the urban agriculture world. Growing Power not only provides education and hands on experience to those who wish to learn about urban farming, it makes farm fresh vegetables and meats available to all Milwaukee residents, regardless of race, income, or address.

Will Allen has been a farmer as far back as he can remember. He grew up on a farm just outside of Washington DC, and his after school and summer hours consisted of farm work first, then play later. “My dad was a sharecropper, and he wanted us to know where our food came from,” Will said. As a six-and-a-half-foot-tall teenager, Will’s dreams were of basketball stardom, not farming. “All I remember thinking was, I can’t wait to get out of here.”

Will got the chance he was looking for when he received a basketball scholarship from the University of Miami. He was later drafted by the European Professional League, moving to Belgium. Off the court, Will began mingling with local farmers, learning about methods they used to grow produce. He was especially intrigued by the composting techniques he saw being used to produce healthy soil. Will soon realized that what he truly had a passion for was not basketball, but food. He was shocked at how his desire to farm had come full circle. “There I was in my twenties, wanting to grow food again,” he said.

At age 28, Will decided to retire from basketball in favor of farming. He returned to the US, and began growing on a small Wisconsin farm owned by his wife’s family. While searching for an urban location to sell his produce in 1993, he came upon a two-acre property in northwest Milwaukee that was owned by the city. “I wanted the land, and I told the city I would use it to teach kids about farming,” he said. He was granted permission to purchase the plot, and he set to work farming in the city.

“Long ago I came to the conclusion that you couldn’t grow food in the soil in the cities, it was too contaminated,” so Will came up with an idea that he built his urban farm around: always grow food in new soil. Inspired by what he saw in Europe, Will began experimenting with vermicomposting, using worms to break down vegetable waste in order to create fertile organic soil. He spent five years experimenting with his compost before he was happy with the growing system he created. He is confident in his knowledge and his methods, “If you gave me a handful of worms, and dropped me off anywhere in the world, I could build you a plot as big as you wanted.”

Over the past 18 years, using his new soil idea, Will has transformed his little urban plot into the headquarters for Growing Power, an organization that promotes sustainable farming through demonstration, education, and outreach programs. Growing Power boasts six large greenhouses, where volunteers and employees grow over 150 crops annually. Growing Power also raises livestock, poultry, bees, tilapia, and lake perch, whose numbers have been in decline in the Great Lakes area due to pollution. All this fresh food, produced on just two acres, is made available to members of the urban Milwaukee community. Many of its residents may have never had the opportunity or the resources to purchase healthy, local meats and vegetables, and Will is making sure that never happens again. “Food is the most important thing in the world,” he said firmly. “It binds us all. We all have to eat, so why can’t we all have great food?”

Growing Power was not an overnight success. It took 18 years of research, dedication, volunteer work and grant funds to grow into the national project it is today, with operations in Chicago, Kentucky, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts and Mississippi. “When Growing Power started no one knew what urban agriculture was,” said Will. “Now, Milwaukee has become a national hub for urban ag, and we’re proud of that.” Residents of the city of Milwaukee have embraced Will’s efforts, and their support has allowed Growing Power to thrive. The key to success, according to Will is, “You’ve got to inspire the whole community. If you can’t do that, you’ve got nothing.”

Will’s efforts have garnered him national attention, and his work is heralded as one of the leading examples of how the “Good Food Revolution” can, and should, come to fruition all over the U.S. In 2008, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation gave Will one of their coveted Genius Awards. When asked how he feels about being dubbed a genius, Will answered, “When I started doing this, I was not out for any awards. I look at it as recognition... of not only what I’m doing, but the whole Good Food Revolution. A lot of people have spent a lot of years on this, and I represent the unsung heroes.”

Date: 9/23/2010

Sandra Garner - Snow Hill, NC

Robert Elliott - Louisburg, NC

Orpha Gene Watson - Nash County, NC

Harold Wright - Bladenboro, NC

Sarah Hoffmann & Jacqueline Smith - Weston, MO

Art Tanderup - Neligh, NE

Tom Rogers - Madera County, CA

Abbe Turner - Kent, OH

Deb Windecker -  Frankfort, NY

Chuck Deichmann - Belmont, NY

Carroll Wade - Jasper, NY

Ben Shute - Clermont, NY

Kevin Jablonski - Argyle, NY

Andrew Pittz - Missouri Valley, IA

Chris & Donna Garza - Calhan, CO

The Crutchfields: Life Under Contract - Lamar, AR

Jeff & Annie Main - Capay, CA

Kate Canney - Needham, MA

Kara Fitzgerald & Ryan Wood Beauchamp  - Cuttingsville, VT

Dru Peters & Homer Walden - Dover, PA

Jenn Halpin - Carlile, PA

James & Ida Burkholder - Berks County, PA

Zoë Bradbury - Langlois, OR

Rosie & Ward Burroughs - Denair, CA

Gary Purgason - Madison, NC

Stanley & Evan Hall - South Paoli, IN

Jim Gerritsen - Bridgewater, ME

Zach Ducheneaux - Eagle Butte, SD

Jacob & Courtney Cowgill - Conrad, MT

Tom Nuessmeier - Le Sueur, MN

Sherri Harvel - Kansas City, MO

Gail Fuller - Emporia, KS

Jason Schmidt - Newton, KS

Nick Meyer - Hardwick, VT

The Local Food Hub - Charlottesville, VA

Corky Jones - Brownville, NE

Pat Trask - Wasta, SD

Carol Ford & Chuck Waibel - Milan, MN

Mike Weaver - Fort Sybert, WV

Glyen Holmes - Dothan, AL

Will Allen - Milwaukee, WI

Rebecca Goodman - Wonewoc, WI

Eric Odberg - Genesee, ID

John Kinsman - Sauk County, WI

Luciano Alvarado - Fayetteville, NC

Russ Kremer - Osage County, MO

Hector Mora - Monterey County, CA

Theresa Podoll - Fullerton, ND

Mary Hendrickson - Columbia, MO

Jen Friedrich & Dom Fernandes - Carver, MA

David Senter - Washington, DC

Jere Gettle - Mansfield, MO

Rhonda Perry & Roger Allison  - Howard County, MO

Walker Claridge - Hatton, MO

David Marvel - Harrington, DE

Jerry Harvey - Promise City, IA

Donley Darnell - Newcastle, WY

Greg Massa - Hamilton City, CA

Stuart Veldhuizen - Dublin, TX

Joel Greeno - Kendall, WI

Jeremy Freymoyer - Hamburg, PA

Alan and Lori Callister - West Concord, MN

Jeanne Charter - Billings, Montana

Susan Meredith & Brenna Chase - Brunswick, Maine

Elizabeth Keen - Great Barrington, MA

Missy Bahret & Casey Steinberg - Amherst, Massachusetts

Justin Pitts - Jones County, Mississippi

Kim Buchheit & Mike Robinson - Wise Acre Farm

Ben & Alysha Godfrey - Cameron, TX

David & Serena  - Mount Vernon, WA

Andres Mejides - Homestead, FL

Jamie Collins - Carmel & Carmel Valley, Ca

Kenneth Barber - Ithaca, N.Y.

Genell Pridgen - Snow Hill, N.C.

Chris Kobayashi - Hanalei, Hawaii

Matthew Kurek - Jamesport, N.Y.

Elizabeth Ryan - Staatsburg, N.Y.

Klein Family - Silver Springs, N.Y.

McKinley Hightower-Beyah - New York, NY

Adam Barr - Rhodelia, Ky.

Stan Schutte - Stewardson, Ill.

Francis & Susan Thicke - Fairfield, Iowa

Ben Burkett - Petal, Miss.

Doug Flack - Enosburg Falls, Vt.

Bob and Kathy Perol - Troy, Maine

Bob Muth - Gloucester County, N.J.

Jim Kinsel - Pennington, N.J.

Mary Seton Corboy - Philadelphia, Pa.

Miguel Martinez - San Juan Bautista, Calif.

Tony Thompson - Cottonwood, Minn.

Laura Garber - Hamilton, Mont.

Wettsteins Update - Carlock, Ill.

Kelli Emenes - Covington, La.

Brian Futhey - Woodward, Pa.

Tom Trantham - Pelzer, S.C.

Ryan Wolfe - Chebanse, Ill.

Hank Moss - Erath, La.

Jim Core - Folsom, La.

The Wettsteins - Carlock, Ill.

Kristen Kordet - Madison, Wis.

Bruce & Fran Conard - Martinsburg, Ohio

Mike Nolan - Austin, Texas

Maggie's Farm - Athol, Mass.

Kristi & Brad Fernholz - Appleton, Minn.

Stacy Hall and Bill Dix - Athens, Ohio

Jack & Julie - Barre, Mass.

Bud Odland - Clarion, Iowa

Andrew Stout & Wendy Munroe - Carnation, WA

Rick and Lora Lea - Northeastern, Wash.

Cynthia & Joel Huesby - Walla Walla, Wash.

David Mills - Brandon, Vt.

Ed Snavely - Fredericktown, Ohio

Kim & Ann Seeley - Bradford County, Pa.

Mark Parrish - Boston, Mass.

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Anonymous @ 9/29/2010 9:08:26 AM 
Check out this amazing story on Growing Power from this Milwaukee Radio Station...
Anonymous @ 9/26/2010 8:09:04 PM 
You are Inspiring new folks, old folks and many more folks everyday! Thanks!
Anonymous @ 9/26/2010 6:38:20 AM 
I toured the Milwaukee Growing Power and it is an amazing facility.If you get the chance take it
Anonymous @ 9/25/2010 8:36:08 PM 
What an inspiration! Keep it up for the next generation to learn.

Denise D
Anonymous @ 9/25/2010 8:10:44 AM 
This guy is awesome!

Also, i remember this is the same method my grandfather built his gardens up in the Hill Country in Texas. I remember he used Louisiana Red Wigglers. He said they were big and the best.

Looking forward to being @ Farm Aid 25!
Anonymous @ 9/25/2010 8:10:33 AM 
I attended a Soil Summit in Louisville KY where Will Allen was the featured speaker. His growing model is amazing and I'm looking forward to attending another event soon where Will is going to be the featured guest. Hope your knee is better Will! Barb Adams
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