WILL ALLEN already had the makings of an agricultural dream packed into two scruffy acres in one of Milwaukee’s most economically distressed neighborhoods.
Will Allen is a legendary urban farmer, the CEO of Growing Power and an all-around badass.
“I started doing this because I wanted to prove that you could cash flow an urban or small-scale farm,” says Will Allen. “It just kept snowballing, and we kept building infrastructure, and there were a lot of naysayers.”
There’s no better way to silence naysayers than to build the largest urban farm in the world, which is precisely what Will Allen has done with Growing Power. His non-profit network of urban farms produces more than 1 million pounds of food a year on just 300 acres, thanks to innovative growing techniques and a firm commitment to his mission.
His Growing Power organization has six greenhouses and eight hoophouses for greens, herbs and vegetables; pens for goats, ducks and turkeys; a chicken coop and beehives; and a system for raising tilapia and perch. There’s an advanced composting operation — a virtual worm farm — and a lab that is working on ways to turn food waste into fertilizer and methane gas for energy.
With a staff of about three dozen full-time workers and 2,000 residents pitching in as volunteers, his operation raises about $500,000 worth of affordable produce, meat and fish for one of what he calls the “food deserts” of American cities, where the only access to food is corner grocery stories filled with beer, cigarettes and processed foods.
Now, with a $500,000 “genius grant” that the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded him, Mr. Allen is dreaming bigger.
“I’d like to see Growing Power transform itself into a five-story vertical building being totally off the grid with renewable energy, where people can come and learn, so they can go back to their communities around the world and grow healthy food,” Mr. Allen, 59, said in an interview at the farm.
For Mr. Allen, only the second working farmer to win the award, according to the foundation, his efforts are not meant simply to keep people well fed. He sees Growing Power as a way to organize people whose voices are rarely heard and to fight racism.
“I am a farmer first, and I love to grow food for people,” Mr. Allen said. “But it’s also about growing power.”
For 16 years, through sales, and proceeds from grants, he has extended Growing Power’s operations in Milwaukee and Chicago, spreading the gospel of urban farming around the world and training fellow agricultural dreamers.
An imposing 6 feet 7 inches tall, Mr. Allen, who grew up on a farm outside Washington, D.C., played professional basketball for a time after college, mostly in Europe. In 1993, he left a job with Procter & Gamble and bought a roadside farm in Milwaukee’s economically depressed north side — the last remaining registered farm in the city — and got local teenagers involved.
Now, along with its main farm in Milwaukee, Growing Power, a nonprofit group, has a 40-acre farm in a nearby town, and gardens throughout the city. The group also has operations in Chicago, including a garden at the Cabrini-Green housing project and urban farms in Grant and Jackson Parks.
In addition to retail sales at the Milwaukee headquarters, Growing Power sells to food co-ops, other retail stores and about 30 restaurants in the Milwaukee and Chicago areas.
The Growing Powers headquarters looks like a farm stand in need of a paint job and feels like a 1960s community center. Young and old mill about, shopping and waiting for a tour or a training session or a conference.
There is constant activity, with projects at various stages of completion. Mud-encrusted boots share space with pick-axes and pots of salad greens.
“It’s a crazy place,” Mr. Allen said.
As with any top-notch farmer, Mr. Allen takes special care with his soil. Using millions of pounds of food waste, his farm produces endless compost piles, which are then enriched by thousands of pounds of worms, essential to producing what he calls the highest quality fertilizer in the world.
“There are worms in every pot of soil and every tray of vegetables in this greenhouse,” Mr. Allen said.
His food, free of chemicals, tastes better, Mr. Allen said. “And that’s what the really good chefs understand.”
Paul Kahan, the chef and managing partner of the award-winning Chicago restaurants Blackbird and Avec, is one of the chefs who has been working with Mr. Allen’s organization.
“They are wonderful people and do some interesting things that fit in with what we are trying to do,” Mr. Kahan said. “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.”
Mr. Allen said he learned it all from his parents. “We’re having to go back to when people shared things and started taking care of each other,” he said. “That’s the only way we will survive.”
“What better way,” he mused, “than to do it with food?”