Pro Basketball Player-Turned-Urban Farmer Feeds the World
Tendrils of sweet peas and tender lettuce leaves push forth from well-tended rows inside the winter greenhouse. The air is perfumed with the smell of moist, good earth and tangy herbs, and in between the brightly colored vegetable bounty, schools of tilapia swim in small aquaponic pools. A herd of goats and some chickens roam out back.
This is the agricultural oasis and roadside farm that former professional basketball player Will Allen planted in the most unlikely of places--urban Milwaukee--with help from the most unlikely of farm hands--unemployed teenagers. For more than a decade, Allen has brought fresh produce and a sense of new possibilities to inner city residents.
"We have people who stop by and say, 'Oh, I pass by your place everyday,' and they are quite surprised by all we are doing," Allen says. "That's what we do best--inspire people who want to do something."
When Allen isn't tending greens in Milwaukee or at a second city farm in Chicago, he's sowing the seeds of his nonprofit, Growing Power, across the globe.
Last year, 10,000 people visited his sustainable agricultural center, and many others attended Growing Power workshops held across the country. In February, Allen joined Michelle Obama at the White House to proclaim the goodness of healthy eating and urban farming as the first lady launched her campaign to combat childhood obesity. Later this year, 61-year-old Allen heads to Zimbabwe to work on an agricultural project, and he is planning to a trip to Haiti to help build a food system.
"If they would have had food [after] that earthquake, that could have saved a lot of lives," he says. "They never had a food system, and like many other islands, most of the food they have is imported, even though they have the weather and soil conditions that could grow food."
Allen, the son of Maryland sharecroppers, is passionate about teaching people how to grow food, but this 6--foot-7-inch-tall gentleman once held a different dream. When he left college to join the American Basketball Association, he wanted nothing to do with farming. "When you grow up on a farm, you say 'I'm never doing that hard work again,'" he says.
Oddly enough, it was basketball that led him back to the land. When he played on the Bus Fruit team in Belgium, a teammate invited him to visit his family's farm. "They farmed just like my family did," Allen says. "They were doing it without chemicals, and for me it was relaxing. I realized something was missing."
When Allen left basketball, he joined corporate America and worked in marketing at Procter & Gamble. He also had a small farm in Oak Creek, Wis., that he tended on nights and weekends. One day, on his way to a meeting, Allen spied a greenhouse for sale on Silver Spring Road in Milwaukee. "I planned to use this place to market the products I grew in Oak Creek," he says.
But soon after purchasing the greenhouse in 1993, Allen realized that people were hungry, and he started feeding his neighbors the way his parents, especially his mother, used to in Maryland. "They grew food, and they shared it," Allen says. "That's pretty much what I'm doing today."
Allen also started working with unemployed teens, many of whom had never eaten fresh vegetables, much less grown them. Some of those kids have graduated college and returned to work with Allen's nonprofit. "It just kind of evolved, and one thing led to another," he says.
Growing Power now has a staff of 40, and that little greenhouse has expanded to a 40-acre farm outside city limits, several city gardens, and greenhouses at several local cemeteries. Allen also has a new composting operation on Milwaukee's south side. His daughter runs the Chicago outpost, and his son, a partner at a local law firm, helps with legal issues.
Growing Power received an unexpected windfall in 2008: The MacArthur Foundation awarded Allen a $500,000 genius grant.
"We do very good undercover work, trying to find people who are extraordinarily creative and then try to get to know them from a distance, but they don't know it," says Daniel Socolow, director of the MacArthur fellows program. "We choose people that we can bet on who are just outside of the realm of anybody else in what they do. Our work suggested that Will is that kind of guy."
Socolow says the award goes beyond financial support. "Much more than money, it is the leverage and access and stature that comes with it," he says. "Will is using that, big time. But he doesn't need it now--he's running on his own steam."
Allen's latest projects include a new farm in the college town of Madison that opens later this year and putting up a 10-kilowatt solar electricity system to power his greenhouses on Silver Spring Road. He also is working on a pilot program to convert food waste into acetic acid, which then can become methane gas and be used to generate power.
"There's always room for innovation in this small-scale, local food system, so we're always looking for innovation," Allen says. "This is agriculture of today, and it's also agriculture of the future."