Perspectives Online

Allen brings powerful message to 2009 CEFS event

Growing Power CEO Will Allen (right) greets former U.S. Rep. Eva Clayton at a reception before his lecture.
Photo by Marc Hall

Will Allen, urban farmer, is a giant of a man at 6 feet, 7 inches and 300 lbs. Yet he has the rough hands of a farmer and the ability to relate to audiences ranging from elementary and high-school students to academicians and farmers like himself.

Allen, the CEO of Growing Power, delivered this year’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems’ 2009 Sustainable Agriculture Lecture in November before a stand-room-only crowd of more than 700 at McKimmon Center.

Growing Power has developed urban farms and community gardens in “food deserts” of Milwaukee and Chicago. The organization also engages inner city youth in learning farming skills and translating those lessons into academic achievement. For his efforts, he was recognized with a 2008 MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a “genius award.” He was recently featured in the movie Fresh and has been the subject of numerous magazine articles, including one in the New York Times.

“It was an honor to have Will Allen come to North Carolina to share his vision for providing sustainably raised food for urban consumers,” said Dr. Nancy Creamer, CEFS director. “Urban farming is one of the solutions that CEFS is looking at as we seek to build local food economies in North Carolina.”

Allen’s message was simple: It’s time to change the way we produce food.

“I believe that the future is smaller scale, more intensive production because our current food system is not a sustainable food system. So that’s where we’re headed, and that’s what we’re working on,” he said.

“We have to get people into action rather than just talking about it. We have to grow a lot more farmers, restore the earth by composting, and we’ve got to use renewable energy as a part of the formula to be able to grow that food year-round.”
In 1993, Allen purchased what he calls “the last remaining farm in Milwaukee” — a 3-acre tract with six greenhouses and a small house. At the time, the former professional basketball player was working for Procter & Gamble, and the site seemed like a good place to sell produce from his family’s 100-acre farm nearby.

Two years into the effort, a group of kids from the local YMCA came to him with a plan for developing an organic garden and selling the produce. Allen offered the group a piece of land on his property that was not being used. The plot was rich from potting soil that had been dumped there years before.

After an article on the garden project ran in the local newspaper, other groups sought out Allen’s assistance connecting youth to food production. Within a few years, friends suggested that Allen consider starting a non-profit, but he protested that he came from a for-profit world and knew nothing about non-profits. So supporters took on the role of directors, and Growing Power was born.

The effort has helped change the way people eat in the inner-city neighborhoods near Growing Power’s farms. Early on, Allen began his market basket program, delivering boxes of fresh, local food to schools for families to purchase weekly. The program even accepts cards from government-assistance programs like Food Stamps and Women Infants Children (WIC).

“A lot of my friends had community-supported agriculture (CSA) operations, and they always said, ‘Will, I can’t get my food into your communities,’ and I said, ‘sure you can.’ In every community, there’s a school or a social service agency of some kind, and those can become drop centers. So we started our market basket program by delivering to schools.”

Since Growing Power began, it has incorporated different initiatives that Allen had started on his own farm, such as large-scale composting, picking up food waste around the city and turning it into high-quality soil for farms and gardens. In addition, there are vermicomposting bins, where about 5,000 pounds of worms per farm devour food waste and convert it to high-nutrient fertilizer that is sold and incorporated into the farm soils.

He also partnered with Heifer International to incorporate small-scale aquaculture projects into the greenhouses. He raised 50 pounds of tilapia in barrels over three months.

Today, much of Growing Power’s urban farms is under plastic to provide year-round food production, including tanks where 20,000 tilapia are grown. Some operations even incorporate outdoor livestock, such as chickens, turkeys, ducks, goats and bees.

— Natalie Hampton