Milwaukee's urban farmer

One man’s vision: to bring sustainable agriculture to inner cities.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Whenever Will Allen arrives in a neighborhood, scores of curious children seem to come out of nowhere to see what he’s about. His pickup truck carries spades, hoes, earthworms, seeds, and a truckload of compost – all the components needed to make a garden.

Mr. Allen knows a garden not only gives inner-city kids something to do, but it can also feed them good, nutritious food and invigorate the community at the same time.

This vision of symbiosis between an urban setting and locally grown food is what prompted Allen, a 6 ft., 7 in. former professional basketball player, to purchase the last three farm acres in Milwaukee 16 years ago and invite inner-city youth to help him grow vegetables.

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“Food is at the very foundation of community development,” Allen says.

His efforts have paid off in significant ways. Today his nonprofit, Growing Power, operates a handful of urban farms and community growing centers around Milwaukee and downtown Chicago.

In addition, Growing Power is helping to develop urban gardening sites and training centers in several other states and two international centers in Kenya and Ukraine. Its website, www.growingpower.org, posts research on its farming techniques as well as various how-to gardening videos.

Allen’s low-tech, low-cost farming approach has earned him a reputation as a leader in the urban gardens and sustainability movement and a “genius grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Yet Allen doesn’t want to just grow food, he wants to build healthy communities. The strength of Growing Power’s success is centered on the philosophy that a community must literally be grown from the ground up.

“Every human being should have access to affordable food,” he explains. Around this concept of good food for all, Allen has built a network of relationships among neighborhoods, schools, universities, government, and funding agencies. “Everyone has to be involved. Everyone!” he says.

Hands-on education
Children are the immediate beneficiaries of urban gardens. By involving scores of youngsters in his projects, Allen hopes to give them a sense of purpose and belonging as an alternative to joining gangs.

Through Growing Power programs young people gain practical skills such as operating power tools and teamwork. They learn marketing by selling their produce at farmers markets.

And they absorb gardening know-how such as building “hoop houses” (greenhouses with arched roofs) and raised beds, vermiculture (worm farming), and composting.

Applying their reading and math skills in the garden also helps to improve their grades at school. As a result, an increasing number of schools are signing up for Growing Power’s six-week hands-on courses to learn about sustainable farming methods, entrepreneurial skills, and healthy eating habits.

The simplicity and practicality of Growing Power’s mission has attracted attention from the halls of higher education as well. College students from Grinnell in Iowa and Oberlin in Ohio have worked in Growing Power’s greenhouses, milked goats, fed animals, and made compost.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Great Lakes WATER Institute consults with Allen’s aquaculture (fish farming) operation, which raises 10,000 yellow perch and tilapia a year on its urban farms. Allen’s system costs $3,000 to build, as opposed to a $50,000 conventional system.

“You need an engineering degree to operate one of these [conventional] systems. I can teach you our system in a five-hour workshop,” says Allen, who also consults Madison’s microbiology department. “Our object is to make it as simple as possible.”

Urban farming has its challenges, and the key to its success is the soil, especially when the land may be contaminated from past uses, he says. “Without good soil, crops don’t get enough of the nutrients they need to survive. When plants are stressed, they are more prone to disease and pest problems.”

To achieve an organic label for its produce, Growing Power makes 6 million tons  pounds of compost for its soil each year from the collected food wastes of grocery stores, wholesale produce companies, and moldy hay.

But the success of Growing Power relies on more than just rich soil. Its programs are a shining example of “sustainability,” a key buzzword in the local-food movement.

In addition to providing local alternatives to processed food found at corner stores, its viable urban farms create jobs, develop small businesses, and keep precious dollars in the community, says Jerry Kaufman, a professor emeritus of urban planning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Growing new farmers
Allen hopes to recruit and nurture a new class of farmers from among the young people he meets through Growing Power’s presentations, demonstrations, workshops, and weekend seminars. He strives to show them that small farm operations are not only doable but essential in promoting sustainable agriculture.

“They’re the ones to take this forward,” he says.

Allen’s passion for agriculture springs from his childhood on a farm in Maryland where he and his brothers cultivated their own garden. Although they were never wealthy, Allen recalls the many times his mother kept a stirred pot on the stove in order to be ready to feed dozens of family, friends, and neighbors.

He never expected that he’d return to farming in his adult life, but Allen discovered during his professional basketball days in Europe that he just couldn’t resist the pull to dig around in the soil.

His daughter, Erika Allen, continues the family tradition by serving as director of Growing Power’s Chicago projects.

In September Allen was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant” of $500,000, which is given to individuals described as “creative, bold, energetic and promising of more achievement.”

Allen plans to use his grant money to continue providing fresh produce to the poor while he searches for new and creative ways of improving the health and diet of inner-city communities.

(NOTE: To go to the Monitor's main gardening page -- which contains articles and blog posts on many topics -- click here.)

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