Learning From Urban Farmer and Compost King Will Allen

Urban farming visionary Will Allen expands his services, growing even more healthy food in the concrete jungle. Two feet of compost, Allen says, is enough to turn asphalt into a cornfield.

By Rachel Kaufman

Grow, bloom, thrive: that’s Will Allen’s motto.

Allen is the founder and director of Growing Power, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit that helps people grow their own local, healthy food. His work with Growing Power over the last two decades has earned him a McArthur “genius grant,” a mention on Time’s list of 100 most influential people, and a partnership with First Lady Michelle Obama on her “Let’s Move” campaign, designed to get children eating healthy food.

All this from a guy who just wanted to grow things.

will allen.jpg Photograph of Will Allen courtesy Growing Power.

“I bought the farm originally to sell produce,” Allen told audience members at a talk he gave last week at the Ecology Society of America/National Education Association Ecology and Education conference in Washington, D.C.. Allen grew up on a farm in Maryland, “and when I turned 18 I swore I would never do this again.” He became a pro basketball player for the European Professional League, and while visiting another player’s farm home, he realized what he’d been missing since he left home.

But after a few years of training kids to work summer jobs on his farm, he realized he wanted something bigger.

Now Growing Power makes 22 million pounds of compost a year; maintains 15,000 pots of greens, herbs, fruits, and veggies; and grows tens of thousands of fish to market size yearly.

Not to mention the chickens and the goats.

And the bees. And the mushrooms.

greenhouse.jpgPhotograph of a Growing Power greenhouse courtesy Growing Power.

As well as offering low-income residents a cheap CSA (community-supported agriculture) food box and selling compost and worm castings to other gardeners, the organization also teaches people how to take the systems Allen has pioneered–like an aquaponic set-up that costs less than a tenth of a commercial system–and take them to urban yards, vacant lots, and even empty parking lots. Two feet of compost, Allen says, is enough to turn asphalt into a cornfield.

What Allen and Growing Power are doing is green in a number of ways: the local food travels shorter distances to get to the plate, for one. Two, Allen’s farm is partially powered by solar energy. And those greens? Grown year-round in Wisconsin? Yeah, but unlike a lot of commercial growers that heat their greenhouses to keep their plants alive, Allen just shovels compost up to the edges of the greenhouse. The bacteria give off enough heat to keep food toasty all winter long.

worms.jpgPhotograph of Will Allen with worms from compost bins courtesy Growing Power.

Growing Power isn’t just about saving the planet with local food. Allen’s out to change the injustices of the food system—to make sure that people, regardless of income, have access to fresh, good food.

“You can’t have sustainable communities and green communities if you have a lousy food system,” he told the conference audience. “Food is the number one community development tool. Why would anybody want to do anything if they’re hungry or sick? Our food today is making us sick.

“A lot of the food we eat has lost a lot of its nutritional impact,” he added. “It’s being shipped from miles away and may be 5 or 10 days old. We’re basically just eating cellulose.”

Growing Power now has satellite farms outside Milwaukee, and in Chicago. And more are coming: the organization has plans to build a five-story vertical farm that would have 23,000 square feet for classrooms, offices, and a demonstration kitchen, and 15,000 feet for growing veggies. They’re fundraising now, “so if you want to write me a check for $10 million dollars, go ahead,” Allen joked.

With all those vegetables and fruits to choose from, what does Will Allen like to eat?

“Okra,” he told the Green Guide. “You can fix it a million different ways.”

rachel-headshot.jpgRachel Kaufman is a writer and editor covering science and the environment, emerging technology, and a potpourri of other topics. Her freelance writing career has taken her inside Victorian-era “castles,” French patisseries, and a haunted train tunnel, and in addition to her work for National Geographic News, her byline has appeared in the Washington Post, ScientificAmerican.com, and CNN/Money. Rachel grew up outside Minneapolis and received her B.A. in English and journalism from Adelphi University on Long Island, but finds her constitution (and temperament) far better agrees with the swampy air of her adopted hometown, Washington D.C. Her blog and portfolio can be found at http://readwriterachel.com and she tweets about science, journalism, and video games at @rkaufman.

Changing Planet


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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn