As soon as I knew that I would be in Milwaukee for the annual Women In Travel Summit for travel writers and influencers, I knew that I had to make a special trip to see what the big deal was about Growing Power Inc. I had been on the email list for a few years, and noticed that every new post was either a glowing recognition from First Lady Michelle Obama, or workshop offerings that fascinated my big-city imagination. Having studied in a small-scale environmental program of a large university that stressed the importance of the local as well as the global, what Mr. Will Allen was doing caught my attention. I spoke with the hospitality crew of Visit Milwaukee and had a graciously arranged private tour of the facility. The first thing you smell is fresh soil and mushrooms, faintly mingling with manure from the goats outside in pens.
Just a short distance from Havenswoods State Forest Park on West Silver Spring Drive is the last tract of land within Milwaukee’s city borders specifically zoned for agriculture. In 1993, former professional basketball star Will Allen purchased this land and set up the garden center as a base for his urban farm movement. To be Black in the growing sustainable food production industry is to be putting oneself on the map in a uniquely modern way; the literal wildest dreams of the ancestors.
A son of sharecroppers whose sports talent took him to Belgium and back, Mr. Allen reconnected with his grounding roots overseas, observing the techniques of small European farmers. With his business acumen and agricultural origins, Mr. Allen was in the right place, at the right time, to be a pioneer of the modern-day urban agriculture phenomenon in the Midwest. Today, Growing Power is a nationally recognized nonprofit and land trust with international influence. In late October this year, State Senator LaTonya Johnson (D) worked with others to push through new legislation making it even easier to spearhead urban farming efforts in large urban areas of Wisconsin, investing in the nationwide expansion of a legacy industry.
The nonprofit Growing Power is not only a working farm and aquaponics center; it is a green stand that sells directly to the public, as well as restaurants and groceries. Scholarships for workshops and conferences spanning topics such as the upcoming “Dismantling Racism in the Food System” make Growing Power a true community stalwart dedicated to feeding the brains as well as the bellies of the locals. It is a fact that making nutrient-dense food available and more accessible in urban environments helps to conquer “food deserts,” and, in turn, revitalize the spirit of the beneficiaries. Youth projects from February through June annually train over 1,000 volunteers as well as paid interns in various skills of the earth, while also benefitting from their vibrancy and technological exchange, making the recent legislation a tangible outcome of this effort of more than two decades. The practical skills Mr. Allen has developed are models everyone wants to learn and propagate.
To be sure though, the CEO and founder of Growing Power’s modest beginnings at the garden center has reached far beyond the city zones. Often photographed in his signature sleeveless t-shirt exposing powerful biceps and height of his younger career, he has speaking engagements at universities, travels abroad to share his knowledge base and partner with global agriculture initiatives, and also hosts international visitors sojourning to the Milwaukee headquarters where it all began as a family endeavor. If you ask him, the main reason Mr. Allen got into the “good food” revival was to equalize disparities in the current food system that too often leaves African-American communities without access or input. The more communities know about where their food comes from, and how to grow it, the easier it will be to empower healthier people on the local level, through innovative jobs, business relationships, and education.
Growing Power champions several operational methods to maintain healthy food production and husbandry. Eschewing the contaminated city soil of the urban environment, GP generates six to eight million pounds of their own in a 1:1 food waste and wood chips ratio for their composting, even getting barley donations from local Lakefront Brewery. The aquaponics system is easy-to-use, sustainable and costs less to construct and operate than one might think: the area is heated by a combination of natural gas and renewal solar heat panels. The outfit collects 20,000 gallons of rainwater, reuses soil from their popular micro-greens productions, and raises livestock for food as well as a working example of a cyclic system. Workshop topics offered include beekeeping and honey harvesting for beginners, Fall planting and season extension (see the latest boast on their Facebook page about growing raspberries in winter!), and commercial business training. The fact that Growing Power’s model is being shopped by his team to far-flung Port-Au-Prince, Kenya, and the Ukraine is a testament to the viability of this mindset worldwide.
Besides being regularly featured in farming industry publications, Mr. Allen was a 2008 MacArthur Foundation Fellow, has been written about by Van Jones for TIME Magazine, featured in O Magazine, and Bon Appetít, a leading culinary periodical. Mr. Allen has received several accolades for innovative work within Growing Power and has expanded his operation to Chicago, IL and Madison, WI. As a nonprofit, Growing Power is committed to ongoing fundraising and charitable efforts locally and worldwide, and can use your support in a variety of ways.