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.”