Will Allen, Pioneering Urban Farmer

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By Paul Rockwell

 

“My return to farming was a kind of homecoming,” writes Will Allen in his riveting autobiography, “The Good Food Revolution”.

 

His parents were sharecroppers who fled North in the Great Migration, and it was hardly easy for Allen to return to the soil.

 

The history of agriculture in the U.S. is largely the history of racial oppression, and farming, his friends said, is “slave’s work.”

 

But for Allen, the great tragedy of African-Americans today is that, in losing touch with the land, they lose valuable skills: how to grow and prepare decent food.

 

Heart disease, diabetes, obesity—diet-related disease—is reaching epidemic proportions in low -income communities.

 

As CEO of Growing Power, Allen is widely recognized as the preeminent practitioner of urban agriculture in America. He was a basketball star, then a corporate executive, before he founded Growing Power in a food desert, on a two-acre lot less than half a mile from Milwaukee’s largest housing project.

 

He first sold food out of the back of a truck, then set up a farm stand, and soon his store became the only place for miles around to carry free-range eggs, home grown honey, and grass-fed beef.

 

He purchased a few rundown greenhouses, where he transformed city waste and food scraps into rich compost, life-giving soil. His innovative methods, vermicomposting (using worms to fertilize soil) and aquaponics (a closed system of growing plants and fish), yielded remarkable amounts of food in small spaces.

 

Through trial and error, Allen’s staff developed models for growing food intensively and vertically in a world of asphalt.

 

“We found ways to make fresh fruits and vegetables available to people with little income. We created full-time agricultural jobs for inner-city youth,” he said. “We began to teach people to grow vegetables in small spaces and reclaim some small control over their food choices.”

 

Allen’s energetic daughter, Erika, runs Growing Power at the Cabrini-Green-Public Housing project in Chicago, where the Fourth Presbyterian Church transformed an old basketball court into a verdant community garden.

 

Allen is extremely popular with kids. He works alongside students, teaching them the basics of soil cultivation.

 

“Most young people from the inner city have never had a face-to-face encounter with a vegetable that has been plucked from the earth…Children come to my facility for the first time with their pockets filled with candy, acting wild. Something changes in them when they walk up to my worm systems and put their hands in the soil for the first time. They mellow. It can be a spiritual thing to touch the earth if you have been disconnected from it for so long,” Allen said.

 

Growing Power includes an agricultural program for youth offenders who are transitioned out of the detention system through Farm-City Link.

 

A hopeful revolution is changing America’s food system. The Allen story demonstrates that growing your own food locally under conditions of self-determination is transformative. Karen Parker, the dynamic African-American co-director of Growing Power, says, “It’s a wonderful thing to change people’s lives through changing the way they’re eating.”

 

Her own parents, she adds, would have lived much longer with a healthier diet.

 

Farming, Allen insists, is not a fad. It’s hard, physical labor, but it’s not “slave’s work.”

 

The past has no power over Will Allen.

 

Paul Rockwell is a columnist for In Motion Magazine and lives in Oakland.

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