As the world is encouraged to become more environmentally conscious, urban farmer Will Allen is crisscrossing the globe, sharing his passion for self-sustainable farming while revolutionizing the food production process at the same time.
He and his protégé, daughter Erika, recently gave a keynote address about dismantling racism in the food system and how to pass farming onto the next generation during the annual W.K. Kellogg Foundation Food & Society Conference 2009 in northern California. Then it was off to Minneapolis to address the American Planning Association and later to the Mississippi Delta to help black farmers develop organic farming infrastructure.
“So I’ve been on the road a lot,” says Allen, the 60-year-old founder of nonprofit Growing Power Inc. who was spending a few days at his Milwaukee headquarters before jetting off again.
Allen, a former professional basketball player who joined the ranks of Corporate America after retiring, has known for several decades that his passion is farming, a skill his sharecropper parents passed on to him and his siblings, even after they migrated from the South to the Washington, D.C. area. But it wasn’t until the married father of three left his sales position with Procter & Gamble in March 1993 that he was able to pursue his love fulltime.
He founded Growing Power in 1995, two years after purchasing the last remaining three acres of farmland inside the Milwaukee city limits. Allen says he relied on self-funding and sweat equity to get his nonprofit off the ground, helping Growing Power grow from a volunteer organization to become a multifaceted nonprofit specializing in large-scale food and farming production, researching, training and youth mentoring.
In 2002, Erika Allen, 39, opened Growing Power’s Chicago Project Office, where she blends her love of agriculture and art to help inner-city communities create aesthetic self-sustainable urban gardens and urban farms. With 36 employees, Growing Power currently operates six gardens and farms –three in Chicago and three in Milwaukee – with the hopes of adding two more Wisconsin locations this summer.
Creating a career around his passion, allowed Allen to perfect his farming techniques for producing organic food. He swears by his own composting formula that combines six million pounds of food residue such as coffee grinds and rotten fruit with 18 million pounds of carbon residue like old newspapers and hay to turn into high nutrient compost. Red worms are added, producing beneficial bacteria, and voilà, within six to 12 months, healthy soil is created to plant “beyond organic food,” a phrase he coined to describe farming methods Growing Power incorporates that “supercedes the [United States Department of Agriculture] organic food standards.”
“All of the existing soil inside our cities are contaminated so you have to grow new soil for healthy food,” says Allen, adding that the process creates several thousand yards of soil, which Growing Power retails for $75 per cubic yard. Allen also relies on an aquaponic system to grow lake perch and tilapia, using a symbiotic relationship existing between the plants and the fish where the effluent from the fish help fertilize the plants and the plants help clean the water for the fish.
Growing Power’s philosophy is attracting people from around the world, including Ghana, Ukraine, Kenya and Macedonia, who want to learn its model so they can take it back to their communities and replicate it.
“This is it! People need to control their food system, to have food and land sovereignty and the ability to create their own soil fertility. With this so much could happen!” says Erika Allen, who holds a Bachelors degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Masters degree in art psychotherapy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. “They catch the passion and go back and bring us in to help set up the system, plan projects or provide mentorship.”