Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 11:00 am
After he left his father’s farm in Bethesda, Md., to play basketball for Miami University in 1967, Will Allen swore he would never go back to farming.
However, today, Allen is the founder and chief executive officer of Growing Power Inc., and he is one of the biggest connoisseurs of urban farming and producers of fresh foods in the Milwaukee area.
Growing Power, located at 5500 W. Silver Spring Drive, is one of the only operating farms in the City of Milwaukee today. Since its foundation in 1993, the organization has grown from Allen being the single volunteer to having more than 30 employees, and a second regional office in the Chicago area.
Growing Power now produces food year-round. The company says it does so in "sustainable" ways and provides "safe, healthy food" to Milwaukee area residents through its Market Basket Program.
The program offers consumers a bag of enough fruits and vegetables to feed a family of four for a week. The cost of a traditional bag is $14. Food stamps are accepted.
Some of the familiar drop sites for the Market Baskets in the Milwaukee area include Marquette University, The Boys and Girls Club on Sixth Street, the 16th Street Community Health Center and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus. There are about 40 different drop sites in the Milwaukee area.
Both of Allen’s parents came from farming backgrounds, and while his father was away at work, it was Allen and his two brothers who took care of the family farm. When he was growing up, the Allens grew about 85 percent of their family’s food.
"We were always rich in food but very poor in a lot of the other things," Allen said. "As far back as I can remember though, we were growing and sharing our food. It was just our way of life." After college, Allen spent some time in the now defunct American Basketball Association (ABA), playing for the Miami Floridians, and he also played in the European Professional League. It was in Belgium that he realized his passion for farming.
"I started hanging out with some Belgium farmers. They farmed a lot like we used to," he said. "It must have released a hidden passion in me, because before I left Belgium, I had a garden and some chickens of my own."
Allen eventually made his way to Wisconsin, where his wife, Cynthia, was from, and he began farming on 100 acres of land in Oak Creek. He built up that farm and also worked a full-time corporate job in sales technology.
In 1993, Allen purchased the 1.5 acre plot of land that is currently the Growing Power property. Originally, the plot was to be used as a for-profit business to sell Allen’s produce. However, the facility began being used as an urban farm in 1995, when the YWCA approached Allen for help with a youth project to grow an organic garden.
Allen let the children use the open field on the back of his lot, where green houses are now located.
"The whole idea behind it was that well maybe these kids aren’t going to be farmers, but they are learning about where their food comes from, learning hard work and developing life skills so maybe they can eat healthier and use those things later on in life," he said.
After that first volunteer program, Allen received numerous phone calls asking for help on projects, and it was then that he decided to form a nonprofit organization.
"I don’t come from a nonprofit background," he said. "So I didn’t know anything about the nonprofit world, but my friends said it would be a good idea and offered to serve as the board of directors and do the administrative work. I told them the only thing I wanted to do was to have my hands in the soil and help teach these kids. That was my commitment when I bought this place, was to open it up to the community."
They formed an organization called Farm City Link, which according to Allen, expressed his desire to link the urban life of the city with rural farming. Today, the name Growing Power, obtained in 1999, expresses the organization’s intent to grow communities by growing sustainable food sources.
"Food is the No. 1 thing for community development," Allen said. "If you don’t have a good food system, you can’t do anything."
In 1996, Growing Power was approached by Heifer Project International, based in Little Rock, Ark., to be a part of their urban farming project. After Allen agreed, Heifer brought in 150 tilapia fish and the facility’s first hydroponics system. They also started the facility’s supply of red worms.
"They brought in these 50 gallon drums, one was the fish tank, one was the weed tank, and one was the rock tank, and that was supposed to replicate a creek system," Allen said.
Today, not only does Growing Power produce food, with the help of its co-op farmers, it also farms lake perch, tilapia and red worms, and it composts refuse from businesses in the area, including Alterra Coffee, Lakefront Brewery and Sendik’s Food Markets. Allen oversees six farms throughout southeastern Wisconsin, including the Growing Power facility, which farms year-round in green houses, using compost for heat.
"Over the years we have taken that idea of passing on that knowledge, and I know for a fact that we have had more pass-ons than any other group in the history of Heifer," Allen said.
People from all over the country have come to see what Allen is doing with Growing Power.
"We are doing about 60 different things worldwide," he said. "I want people to look at our model, and see that it is possible to practice intensive agriculture in a small space, you can raise fish and grow food year round and in a vertical system."
Allen and his team have begun planning for a new five-story glass building on Growing Power’s lot where the current barn stands. Fish farming would be on the first level, and food growing would be done on the other four levels with water being pumped to the top floor and trickling back down to the bottom floor in a system similar to the ones used now in the green houses.
"Three-fourths of the building would be used for growing, and the other part would be classrooms for teaching," Allen said. "Looking to the future, this building would be beyond green and serve as a model for other buildings inside cities like New York. As more people are moving to cities, we need to find ways to feed those people inside urban areas."
To make that dream a reality though, Growing Power will need to come up with some additional funding.
"This is really a place to inspire. I think that’s the greatest thing that we do, is inspire people to get off the planning table and do something, to take that knowledge back and make it work in their communities," Allen said.