Milwaukee’s Growing Power Founder Pushes Urban Farming
Even city people need to go back to the soil, and there’s no reason they can’t, Will Allen says.
The former pro basketball player points to the ex-garden center that he transformed into an urban vegetable farm. Behind his five greenhouses, there’s a small barnyard of chickens, ducks and goats.
He works with youth groups, schools, churches and anyone else interested in learning how community gardens can change people for the better.
But the key to success, he said, is the compost he makes from waste food and other organic material, with the help of millions of earthworms that digest what otherwise would go to landfills.
“It’s all about the soil,” Allen said. “It’s all about the high nutrient compost that we grow, so we really grow soil first.
“If you grow soil, then you can grow healthy food,” leading, ultimately, to a healthy community, he said.
This week, his nonprofit Growing Power Inc. serves as host of a national conference Wednesday through Saturday for beginning and small-scale farmers.
Allen, 58, the director of Growing Power, said the event boosts Milwaukee as a “Mecca for food system work” and provides good news for a city that, like other urban areas, is often seen as dominated by poverty, unemployment and crime.
“We have so many negative things and we need something positive for Milwaukee,” he said.
The conference, with the lengthy title of Risk Management Strategies for Beginning and Small Farmers and Ranchers, was arranged with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency.
Bill Buchanan, director of civil rights and community outreach for the RMA, said Allen’s group was a natural choice for the event.
“Not only is Will very well-known nationwide and internationally, he creates a lot of innovative programs that can be done on small plots of land,” he said. “And also he’s willing to share his knowledge with anyone who wants it.”
Allen wasn’t surprised to see far more than the expected 400 people sign up for the conference. By late last week, he said about 700 had registered.
“The renaissance in urban agriculture is the hottest thing going right now,” Allen said.
His center is one example, with its greenhouses filled with the earthy smells of plants and herbs - a place where young people can work, learn and share his vision.
“You see kids who come in with this chip on their shoulder, and they don’t mess with dirt and they don’t do that stuff,” said Deshell Parker, 28. “By the end of the program you see them proud of what they’ve put together and what they’ve grown, be it tomato plants or whatever.”
She said exposure to Allen while working with him as an adolescent helped her develop the commitment to go to college and earn advanced degrees as a social worker. These days, her 5-year-old daughter is becoming an expert in recycling, vegetables and compost through her visits to the center, Parker said.
Her family lived next door to the two-acre property Allen bought in 1993, adjacent to an Army Reserve center on Milwaukee’s far north side.
Her mother, Karen Parker, has worked with Allen from the start and still serves as manager, overseeing things like the market basket program that sells weekly bags of fresh produce to area residents year-round.
She helps organize tours that show visitors how Allen raises vegetables in thousands of pots for efficient use of the greenhouse space, and how his self-sustaining system of fish farming raises lake perch and tilapia while circulating the water to feed growing plants.
“Everybody comes back and tells me it’s magical,” she said.
Allen puts his ideas on display by holding workshops on urban farming.
He also works with his daughter, Erika Allen, who manages a branch of Growing Power in Chicago.
He grew up on his family’s small vegetable farm outside Washington, D.C.
He left for the University of Miami, played basketball and was drafted in 1971, joining the Miami Floridians of the American Basketball Association as a 6-foot-6 forward. He played the next three years in Europe before returning to the U.S., where he got back into vegetable farming in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek.
Then came his purchase of the former garden center and its development into an example of the community-based farming that Allen promotes.
“This year we’ll rescue 6 million pounds of food residue and turn it into healthy soil,” he said.
Among that residue is the waste barley and hops from Lakefront Brewery LLC in Milwaukee.
“Some breweries just have to dispose of it, which is what we’re trying to avoid,” said Chris Ranson, who works with tour operations and environmental programs for the downtown microbrewer.
Instead, 15,000 pounds of the waste a week go to a farm outside of town where it’s mixed with organic vegetable matter and left for a year, with worms added to turn it into compost.
“The result is that ‘black gold,’ the worm castings,” Ranson said. “We sell it in our gift shop.”
“You can put it right on your plants, or you can steep it” for use as a liquid fertilizer, she said.
Allen said community gardens also conserve fuel.
“Imagine if we weren’t doing this,” he said. “Everything that we’re delivering to grocery stores, to restaurants, to schools, to all of our customers, guess where it would come from - it would come from California, thousands of miles away.”