By Tracie McMillan
Plenty • Aug. 3, 2007
When Will Allen was offered a buyout from his job at Procter and Gamble in 1982, he knew exactly what to do with the corporate cash: Buy a farm. Allen dropped $80,000 on 100 acres south of Milwaukee’s airport, and eventually added a couple of acres within city limits.
Today, the 58-year-old has 25 years of urban agriculture experience under his belt—and he’s put it to good use. As the executive director of Growing Power, an urban agriculture group, Allen oversees a wide array of innovative programs that have made the organization one of the country’s preeminent teaching institutions for city-based, grassroots farming practices. “Our strength is in inspiring people to get up off the planning table,” he says.
Much of Allen’s allure comes from his straight talk and affable approach, says Alison Cohen, northern program manager for Heifer International, a foundation that has funded Growing Power’s work since the late 1990s. “Will never just talks the good talk—he always delivers and he takes risks, yet he’s market savvy and can really help farmers turn their ideas into profit,” she says.
And those ideas are all about sustainability. For instance, Allen’s latest project uses 5,000 pounds of worms to generate hundreds of pounds of nutrient-rich compost daily, along with an aquaculture program that includes 50,000 fish. Both help make Growing Power’s soil phenomenally rich, and completely organic. What’s more, because Allen is committed to renewable energy, much of the farm’s power is generated by solar power and methane gas. Soon, Allen hopes to be running the group’s five greenhouses entirely on renewable energy. If they manage to get completely off the grid, he says, it could save the group up to $45,000 a year in electrical costs.
Indeed, Allen has a ready retort for farmers who insist they can’t grow organic food at affordable prices. “You just have to produce your inputs,” says Allen. “It’s all about your soil, having this high nutrient compost—it’s not about having a green thumb or a brown thumb or whatever kind of thumb.”
All that compost translates into a strikingly productive farm. To sell its produce, Growing Power started a low-cost version of a community supported agriculture project, nixing the up-front investment and charging $12 for a bag of food that would normally retail for $20. They’ve since expanded the effort into a cooperative, distributing the week’s bounty from 23 small farms in Illinois and Wisconsin to city dwellers and restaurants.
In the process, Allen has been doing double-duty, inspiring interested people to stick a hoe in the ground while spreading a gospel he’s taken to heart: Good food isn’t just for affluent, white folks. It’s for everyone.
That’s not to say it’s been easy. “Only a few of these organizations are led by people of color, and very few—very, very few—are led by an African-American male,” says Allen—who, at 6’7” would stand out in any crowd.
It’s that cultural divide—and knowing how to traverse it—that really sets Allen apart, says Cohen. “His ability to work across culture, class lines, socioeconomic status, political affiliations. He’s just remarkable,” says Cohen. “He’s able to get people really inspired.”
But the real motivation, says Allen, stems from the farm’s open invitation to any and all visitors, from Bill Richardson (President Clinton’s energy secretary), to curious Milwaukee residents.
“You can talk all you want, but unless people can see something working, it’s a hard sell,” says Allen, who puts last year’s visitor count around 6,000. “It’s an easy sell if they can touch it, feel it, see it.”