About Growing Power
From a 2.5-acre farm, located in the heart of Milwaukee, Growing Power is bringing healthy, low-cost, sustainable food to the “food deserts” of our nation’s urban centers, while educating a nation of the benefits of urban farming, and mitigating racism by empowering the minority communities they serve. Growing Power also runs numerous collaborative projects, teen internships and training projects, which engage city youth in producing healthy foods for their communities. Founder Will Allen—named by Time Magazine as one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People—is a McArthur Fellow and a member of the Clinton Global Initiative. growingpower.org

About Founder Will Allen
“Paved paradise to put up a parking lot.” Joni Mitchell’s haunting words don’t much scare Will Allen. This urban farmer is looking to the concrete and asphalt jungles of our inner cities as the next logical step in farming. In 1993, he founded Growing Power to create his vision of providing healthy natural foods to the urban poor living in what he calls “food deserts.” He sees city skyscrapers as the ideal real estate on which to grow bountiful gardens. He’s certainly proven that he can grow abundantly on two scrappy acres in a rough Milwaukee neighborhood, defying both urban blight and Wisconsin’s forbidding climate.

Allen is the son of a South Carolina sharecropper. He was raised in the suburbs of Washington, DC, where his family grew its own food on a plot of land. His imposing physique (he’s 6’7”) earned him a basketball scholarship to the University of Miami, where he was the university’s first African-American basketball player. He left for college, anxious to make a break from what he then saw as the provincial, hardworking life of his parents. Once there, however, his enormous talent was squandered thanks to the university’s lack of interest in their basketball program. A mixture of bad timing and subsequent bad luck precluded a professional career state-side, but he played in Europe for six years. And even overseas, it didn’t take long for his deeply ingrained love of the land to resurface. In Belgium, he befriended some local, small farmers and rediscovered the joy of growing his own food. But then he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, forcing an end to his basketball career and a return to America for treatment. He and his college bride, Cynthia, settled in her hometown, south of Milwaukee.

It was 1977, and Allen joined the sales team at Kentucky Fried Chicken. After work, he planted his father-in-law’s fallow farmland. He learned quickly that he could sell—and grow—just about anything. He also recognized the inherent dichotomy in growing his own healthy fruits and vegetables while selling fat-laden fried chicken to urban youth who had little to no access to fresh produce. Ten years later, his sales prowess led him to Procter & Gamble where he continued to win awards. And he continued to farm his land.

In the late 1980s, Allen began selling his produce at a local farm market and distributing his extra food to a local food pantry. He noticed that in the pantry—a sea of canned goods—his homegrown produce was quick to disappear.

In 1993, Allen bought a 2.5-acre plant nursery in foreclosure on the north side of Milwaukee, with the idea that it would allow him to grow food indoors and be closer to the urban market he wanted to reach. That was the start of Growing Power. Soon Allen left Procter & Gamble, and, today, he is highly regarded as the leader of the urban farming movement.

From those early days at Growing Power, Allen got kids involved—particularly marginalized minority kids. He knew that his love of the land stemmed from the chores he had had to do on his own family’s farm (which he had to complete before he could practice basketball), and he made his own children work the land with him. Allen understood the reciprocal give and take of teaching kids about urban farming: he benefitted from their labor as much as they reaped the rewards of his teachings.

To help him manage the kids and to provide a proven framework for the training, Allen partnered with Heifer International. It was the first of many fruitful partnerships that bring kids—and now volunteers of all stripes—to Growing Power.

It was Heifer that taught Allen about aquaculture and the value of worm farming. Those two operations are now central to Allen’s sustainable farming process, which utilizes every square inch of space and every opportunity to take advantage of the symbiotic relationships between the different elements on the farm. In fact, Allen spent five years perfecting the ideal conditions for his red wiggler worms—today those slimy worms are his bread and butter.

From his 2.5-acre farm, Allen produces $250,000 of produce and fish that feeds 10,000 folks in Milwaukee’s inner city each year. Produce (salad greens, heirloom vegetables, edible flowers, mushrooms, herbs, etc.) is grown in 20,000 hanging pots, arranged vertically and planted with a mixture of worm castings, compost, live worms and coir in six greenhouses. Nutrient-rich wastewater from pools filled with perch and tilapia fertilizes beds of watercress above, which in turn, filter the water before sending to back to the fish pools in these greenhouses. A cluster of hoop houses feature more fish beds, salad greens, and poultry, and there is one devoted entirely to Allen’s beloved red wiggler worms. Beehives in Milwaukee and Chicago buzz with activity inside the apiary, and outdoor pens are home to goats, rabbits, and turkeys.

Composting is central to the operation of his urban farm: Growing Power composts 400,000 pounds of waste each week, collected from local food establishments, breweries, newspaper publishers and coffee shops. From that waste, Growing Power grows 10 million tons of compost and vermicompost every year. The valuable compost mixture creates a nutrient-dense soil for his pots, which can be seeded at four times normal density and which don’t need to be amended for five years (and which produce $30 of food for each square foot of space). What compost and worm castings they don’t use themselves, they sell. In keeping with their efforts to make productive use of every bit of waste, Allen persuaded the state to help him finance the purchase of an anaerobic digester to produce energy from the farm’s waste, and he’s researching ways to capture methane for additional energy production.

In addition to three-dozen full-time staff members working the urban farm and a nearby 30-acre farm in Merton (which they purchased to supplement the bounty of the urban farm), Growing Power relies on the labor of more than 2,000 volunteers each year. They sell their sustainable greens from a roadside stand on the urban farm, and to a variety of local co-ops and through a weekly produce basket delivery service. The food basket service is an important food-security program that was inspired by the weekly basket of homegrown food that his mother brought to people in need.

Early on, Allen banded together with three other small farmers to create a farming co-op called the Rainbow Farmers Cooperative. It helped gain him entrée into the all-white farmers’ market. Today, more than 300 small farmers are part of the co-op and, as a group, they are able to compete with the large, industrial farms for commercial sales to restaurants, as well as provide grass-fed meats for the Growing Power retail outlets. And, just as he did in the beginning, Allen donates a portion of all the food to local food banks.

“Inspiring communities to build sustainable food systems that are equitable and ecologically sound, creating a just world, one food-secure community at a time.” That’s Growing Power’s official mission. But Allen sees the potential of Growing Power as something even more important than producing a low-cost, healthy and sustainable food source for the food wasteland that is our country’s inner cities. For him, Growing Power provides a means to fight racism. He is using food to empower minority groups to find their voice and organize. He accomplishes that in part by sharing what he knows through weekly volunteer trainings, bi-monthly national training workshops and tours of his urban farm (3,500 of them each year).

Additionally, Allen has recently formulated a new network called the Growing Food and Justice for All Initiative (GFJI). Its purpose is to dismantle racism by bringing together those working to create a new, healthier, more sustainable path to food production. GFJI also works to build multicultural leadership in poor communities by engaging disaffected youth in the sustainable food movement and providing them with leadership development and project planning training.

Allen’s goal is to replicate Growing Power to build community across the country. Already, a strong Growing Power program is in place in Chicago’s inner city (and run by his daughter, Erika), and programs exist in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Mississippi. Through something Allen calls Regional Outreach Training Centers (ROTC), he aims to convert ever more people to his urban farm movement. Working in partnership with Heifer International, Allen’s goal is to open regional food centers modeled on Milwaukee’s Growing Power that will improve minority access to healthy food and develop opportunities for economic development.

Allen is ceaseless in his devotion to his cause. He attributes that drive to keep going to his two brushes with cancer—if he slows down, it might catch up to him. He rises in the wee hours of the morning and works through until long after dark, every day. He sells his alternate vision for the future of food production as he would sell a product, and has been rewarded with recognition as the country’s leading advocate for urban farming.

Allen is steadfast in his dedication to building community through healthy food and in so doing, mitigating racism in this country. “I believe we cannot have healthy communities without a healthy food system,” he writes. He started with a small farm in the middle of a city, and he’s grown that idea into a national movement that is changing lives. “Food is at the foundation, but it’s really about life.” [August 2010]