by Joel McNally
photo by Carl Corey
The sour smell ofdecomposing coffee grounds and beer hops hangs heavily in the air. Food waste of all kinds is piled high in wooden bins and turning slowly into good earth. During the coldest winter days, the temperature at the center of the 4-foot-high piles of compost can reach 150 degrees, enough to heat the entire greenhouse where the compost is housed. And at the center of the entire dirt-making process are the worms.
Red wrigglers. Hard-working worms who eat their weight every day, quadruple their population in four months, and are the key “employees,” as Will Allen lovingly puts it, of Growing Power, the 2-acre urban farm on 55th Street and Silver Spring Drive that he started in 1993.
Allen’s worms spend much of their time outside in expansive “worm nurseries.” Once fully grown, they’re moved to large wooden bins inside – the air thick and dewy from radiating piles of compost – where their “castings” or waste is collected and used as an all-natural fertilizer and pesticide.
This “worm tea” (watered-down worm waste) provides continuous enrichment to Growing Power’s extremely rich, home-grown soil, but can also be used to remediate contaminated soil in industrially poisoned urban neighborhoods. Worms break down toxins in their bodies and leave behind fertile, nutrient-rich soil. “It’s the kind of dirt that makes you wish you were a worm,” quips one Growing Power employee.
The inspiration for this enterprise arose in 1995. Allen – all 6-foot-7, 270 pounds of him – was showing schoolchildren from Neighborhood House how worms break down food scraps. With 30 pounds of red wigglers from Heifer International, Allen taught the kids how to care for and feed the worms. However, many were overfed and died. This got him thinking: What are the optimal conditions for worms to break down refuse? He spent the next five years experimenting.
“I became kind of passionate about this,” Allen says. “Today, if you drop me off anywhere in the world with a handful of worms, I can build you as big a food production system as you want.”
The millions of worms the 61-year-old uses in every one of his agricultural projects all came from that original school project.
His innovations in food production have won him international acclaim. In 2008, Allen became the only Milwaukeean to win the so-called “genius grant” of $500,000 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Allen was one of the experts invited to advise President Barack Obama’s transition team on agricultural policy. And last September, at the annual meeting of Bill Clinton’s Global Initiative, Clinton announced his backing for a $1.9 million project to send Will to South Africa and Zimbabwe to build local food systems.
Allen’s urban agricultural innovations have transformed Growing Power into a national training center for activists in the community food movement, a research institution to create food production models that can be exported internationally, and, most recently, a pioneer in alternative energy production testing a process to convert food waste into methane gas to produce electricity.
Will’s genius for seeing such connections has him raising perch and tilapia for area restaurants in the same water used to grow vegetables. The greens keep the water sparkling clean, while waste from the fish provides nutrients for the plants. It’s a completely natural, self-contained system, and Will travels the world teaching others how to replicate it.
“This guy’s my hero,” said Clinton, introducing Allen on stage in New York. As for Allen’s approach to agriculture, the former president added, “It can change America’s relationship with people all over the world.”
Growing up in Bethesda, Md., farming was the last thing Will Allen imagined himself doing. He wanted to play basketball.
He was just 13 – but well on his way to 6-foot-7 – and he and some friends had summer jobs working at a swimming pool at American University in Washington, D.C. The pool was right next to the gym where college basketball players in summer school would play every afternoon.
“Physically, I was like a man,” Allen says. “When Jim Williams, the American University basketball coach, saw how big I was, he saw me as a recruit. The job at the swimming pool was more like a shadow job. Every afternoon, I used to go over and play basketball with the college guys.”
When Allen started high school in Rockville, Md., nobody knew who he was. But after showing off his dunking ability during junior varsity tryouts, he was quickly sent over to the varsity gym. “The coach put a couple of big centers on me, seniors. I just destroyed those guys,” Allen says. “I had been playing against college guys. I could really jump and run.”
Allen was the first player ever to be named All-Metropolitan, one of the top 10 high school players in the D.C. area, three years in a row. He led Rockville to a state championship and received more than 100 scholarship offers. He ultimately accepted an offer from the University of Miami, becoming its first African-American basketball player in 1967.
Every black athlete who integrated Southern sports programs in the ’60s has horror stories to tell. Allen remembers being greeted by monkey chants when the team played the University of Florida. Members of the crowd would try to spit on him when he ran onto the floor against the University of Alabama. There were death threats in letters signed “KKK” saying: “Go back home, nigger.”
Allen wasn’t looking to make history. He says he chose the University of Miami mostly because of the weather and because St. Bonaventure, another final choice, had only 200 girls in the whole school.
Miami coach Bruce Hale, who recruited Allen, was the father-in-law of pro basketball star Rick Barry, who had played at Miami. Unfortunately, after Allen signed, Hale left Miami to coach Barry’s team, the Oakland Oaks of the American Basketball Association. That was just the beginning of a series of souring developments.
Because freshmen didn’t play varsity in those days, Allen’s college playing experience at Miami started his sophomore year in 1968. The frustrations mounted. The university never got around to building a playing facility on campus or hiring a strong coach to succeed Hale. The team played at the Miami convention center and other remote venues. At one point, the university even considered moving games to a high school gym.
Then, just before Allen’s senior year, when it was too late for him to transfer, the university announced it was considering dropping basketball. Allen, who’d helped recruit athletes from the D.C. area, felt responsible for them.
“We called a press conference,” Allen says. “Here I was, a 22-year-old kid in front of a microphone. We announced we were going on strike. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we got national attention and forced the university’s hand. They announced we would play one more season before they dropped the program.”
It was a terrible season, one Allen is certain hurt his draft status. Despite being the Hurricanes’ leading scorer in 1970-71, he was drafted in the fourth round (60th overall) of the 1971 NBA draft by the Baltimore Bullets. He fell all the way to the 12th round of the competing ABA draft, where he was finally selected by the Miami Floridians.
Before the NBA season even started, Allen was the cut by the Bullets. He was picked up by the Floridians, but after he played in just seven games, the team folded. Allen ultimately ended up in Europe, playing for several teams in Belgium.
Ric Cobb, the Marquette University star who played for Al McGuire and later coached the UWM Panthers, vividly remembers Allen’s style: “We played against each other in the top league in Belgium,” Cobb says. “Will was definitely one of the top 10 players in the country. He could really dominate the paint inside. Whenever he guarded me, he always beat me up. We had good games against each other, but I always felt a little sore afterwards.”
Around age 27, Will developed thyroid cancer. He had two operations back in the U.S. to remove his thyroid gland. Though he made a full recovery, his basketball career was over.
It would take almost four decades, but Allen’s basketball achievements finally received their due. In March, he was singled out as one of the finest players in the history of the country’s most storied league, getting honored as one of the Legends of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Allen ranks second in career rebounds at Miami behind NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry and ranks 17th in career points. His total of 28 20-point games is tied for 10th-most in school history.
“It’s very satisfying from the standpoint of the struggles the program at Miami went through. I had a pretty good career despite all the sideshow stuff,” Will says. “I consider it quite an honor.”
The Accidental Farmer
O.W. Allen was a powerfully built man who couldn’t write his own name and worked as a sharecropper in South Carolina in the 1930s. He would cultivate fields by hand with a mule-driven two-handled plow. And sometimes, after the harvest, he would be told by the white owner that he hadn’t earned any money.
“Imagine working a full farm season and then being told you weren’t going to get any money,” Will Allen says. The only way many sharecroppers survived was on the little food they managed to grow for themselves.
Allen calls his father “one of the smartest people I ever met.” By the time Will and his brothers were born, O.W. and their mother, Willie Mae, had moved to the Washington, D.C., area, where O.W. worked construction. The family lived on a large Bethesda estate out in the country owned by a Canadian research scientist who worked for the National Institutes of Health, a man Allen’s family knew as Dr. Frank.
“Dr. Frank’s son also was a research scientist at NIH,” Will says. “And there was an apartment in the main house where some scientist from a foreign country was always living. Here was this African-American family living on a large estate in Maryland being exposed to people from Japan, India, Sweden.”
Their mother worked as a domestic on the estate and, in between construction jobs, Allen’s father farmed the land with the help of his three sons.
“My father wanted us to learn how to grow food, to learn life skills through farming,” Allen says. But he couldn’t see the value.
“When I left the farm at 18, I said never again will I do this hard work,” Allen recalls. “But in Europe, I had a Belgian teammate who had some relatives with a farm. I went out there and I helped them plant potatoes. All of a sudden, I realized I missed this.
“I started hanging out with some Belgian farmers because they farmed the same way my family did. You didn’t use any chemicals. You took care of the land. I had this hidden passion, I guess. The last team I played for in Lier, I asked the owner to get me a house out in the country. I got 25 chickens. I got some plants and seed and planted a big garden.”
During the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, Will would invite other American players over for big feasts, as many as 20 players with their wives or girlfriends.
“I’m from New York,” Cobb says, “so I was kind of surprised when I went to his house. Here’s a 6-foot-7 professional athlete raising chickens and vegetables in Europe.”
“My family never had a car or a television,” Allen says, “but we always had tons of food. That’s one of the joys of life, being able to share food with folks.”
When Allen returned from Europe and settled in Oak Creek in the ’70s, the future guru of healthy, homegrown food went to work for the Marcus Corp. – ironically, he admits now – managing Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in Milwaukee’s inner city.
But the farming bug continued to gnaw at him. Allen grew vegetables on his in-laws’ land for his own family and to sell at farmers’ markets. But just as at Miami, he had to break down racial barriers to succeed, this time at the Fondy Farmers Market.
At the time, though the market was in the central city, all of the stalls were taken by white farmers. Allen was at the top of a waiting list to get a stall whenever one opened up. But after the death of a farmer, Allen saw the farmer’s family pass his stall along to a white farmer from Racine in a private transaction. Allen protested to the city. As a consolation, the city allowed him to set up outside the market until there was another opening. “We had to set up across the street,” Allen’s son Jason recalls. “That always troubled him.”
After he finally got a stall in Fondy Market proper, Allen says, “an incredible thing happened.” The city decided to stop subsidizing the market; they wanted to bring in a private operator. By now, Will had become friends with many of the other farmers who feared the change would lead to higher rents. They came to Allen to see if he could organize opposition in the black community to stop privatization.
Allen came up with the idea of the farmers forming a cooperative to run the market themselves. He secured a grant to hire an executive director and then was elected president of the Fondy Farmers Market – where Allen was originally not welcome.
“That’s kind of the way I’ve always broken down discriminatory practices,” he says. “I try to find a way to get over them, around them, underneath, whatever.”
About 10 years after the first cancer scare, Allen developed another tumor in his salivary gland. That required more surgery and radiation treatment. He has been cancer-free since.
“It’s something you think about every day,” Allen says. “I try not to focus on it. I don’t even tell anybody I’m a cancer survivor.” But it might have added some urgency to what had increasingly become his life’s mission of connecting farming to the city.
In 1993, Allen was working in marketing for Proctor & Gamble. Driving down Silver Spring Drive, he saw a “For Sale” sign on what turned out to be the last plot of city land zoned for farming. The city of Milwaukee had acquired the land for unpaid taxes from a florist.
A religious congregation was eager to acquire the land and build a church. Don Richards, the alderman for the area, promised the minister he would support the church once the zoning expired.
“Fortunately, I can say now, before the zoning ran out, the Department of City Development came to me and said, ‘There’s this truck farmer from Oak Creek who wants to buy the place,’ ” Richards says. “I would never tell the reverend, but I think more religious activity of a general nature goes on at Growing Power than would have in a church. And that’s speaking as a former clergyman.”
Allen had a powerful vision of an urban farm providing healthy food, education and jobs to an underserved community. He actually considered it an asset to be near Westlawn, the city’s largest public housing project, which he now serves with a weekly “Market Basket” of fresh fruits and vegetables for $16.
There would be an occasional confused goat in traffic and a few early complaints from neighbors startled to be awakened by roosters, Richards recalls. “I thought, ‘God, what a joy to be living in the city and have roosters waking you up.’ ”
But Richards didn’t have to worry long about objections. Will invited anyone who complained to come see what he was doing. “After that, I never got another complaint.”
Jerry Kaufman, professor emeritus in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at UW-Madison, is sometimes described as the father of urban food planning. He was one of the first to propose turning abandoned industrial land in Northern cities back to agriculture.
Kaufman jokes that he got to know Allen by speaking Dutch. They met around 2000 when both were advising a nonprofit organization building community gardens in Madison. Kaufman had just returned from studying farms in the Netherlands. Allen told him he had lived in northern Belgium and knew some Flemish. The two started trading Dutch phrases.
About a year later, Allen invited Kaufman to join the board of Growing Power. Kaufman has been board president since 2003. It was the start of Allen making connections to university planning experts and food research scientists.
Kaufman says Allen takes scientific ideas from around the country and incorporates them at Growing Power. Allen is demonstrating how locally produced food can eliminate enormous distribution and transportation costs and give growers a bigger return. Normally, farmers receive a meager 20 cents of every food dollar from corporate agriculture.
The mission of Growing Power sometimes sounds like spreading thousands of Davids around the country to bring down the Goliath of Big Ag, the multibillion-dollar corporate agriculture system Allen says has failed both farmers and consumers.
“They can’t really compete at our level,” contends Allen’s daughter Erika, who manages a number of Growing Power projects in Chicago. “They can try to market their product a certain way and change some of their language, but as far as implementing local projects, that’s where we have the edge. I hope they try, though, because they would have to transform the way they operate, which would be good for everybody.”
As Growing Power’s reputation spread, Allen secured a $100,000 Ford Foundation grant in 2005. Even more doors opened after Allen won the MacArthur Foundation’s $500,000 “genius grant” in September 2008.
It was early last year that Allen met Clinton at a university conference in Austin, Texas, sponsored by the Clinton Global Initiative.
On a world hunger panel, Allen ended up debating a university president with Wall Street connections who was arguing for exporting biotechnology to Africa. “We’ve already tried that,” Allen responded, “and we’ve got more hunger than ever before.” Instead of trying to impose advanced technologies, why not teach Africans to create local food systems that would allow them to control their own communities and lives, Allen argued.
After the program, Allen was invited to join Clinton and about 30 of his friends for dinner at a local restaurant. Clinton introduced himself to Allen saying: “Hill and I have been following your career for a long time.”
A couple of months later, Allen got a call inviting him to appear on a panel at the annual meeting of Clinton’s Global Initiative in New York. As the conference approached, he got another call asking if he would like to submit a proposal to be funded as a Clinton initiative.
Allen described a project he’d been discussing with an international team to export Growing Power’s food production models to South Africa and Zimbabwe and to bring Africans to Milwaukee for training. The Clinton staff was enthusiastic. The catch: Allen had only 24 hours to write a proposal for the $1.9 million, five-year project. But he got it done.
The Clinton Global Initiative didn’t actually provide the money, but gave Allen access to 300 international funders that otherwise would be out of reach for a nonprofit agency from Milwaukee.
Meanwhile, Allen has been discovered by the national press. A glowing profile in The New York Times Magazine last July hailed him as “the go-to expert on urban farming.” Ebony magazine named Allen, along with President Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, as African-Americans belonging to “The Power 150: Change Agents We Can Believe In.” In February, Allen was one of three speakers sharing the podium with First Lady Michelle Obama when she announced a national initiative to fight childhood obesity.
As Allen’s fame grows, so does his ability to raise money to turn his visions into reality. Within two years, Growing Power expects to raise $10 million to build what he calls “the first vertical farm in the country.”
It would be a five-story, mostly glass-enclosed building at the Silver Spring site, growing food on every floor. The ground floor would include a modern retail store to replace the rustic farmers’ market. For the workshops and training sessions that now attract students from around the world, the structure would include classrooms, meeting rooms and a teaching kitchen.
Growing Power’s annual budget, around $200,000 just five years ago, will grow to about $2.5 million this year. Allen’s annual salary is now $85,000. Within a year, he says, Growing Power will have expanded from its original 2 acres on Silver Spring to farming more than 100 acres in Chicago and metro Milwaukee. Its composting operations will be centralized on land previously used by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District at a treatment plant in Oak Creek. That means putting millions more worms to work creating more soil.
“Without growing new soil, we can’t grow more food,” Allen says. The expanded composting will double the 12 million pounds of food waste Growing Power turned into soil last year.
For all of his battling corporate agriculture, the source of much of the food waste used to grow soil is from corporate Milwaukee. Growing Power collects food waste from cafeterias at local companies such as Northwestern Mutual, Kohl’s Corp., Aurora Health Care and Rockwell Automation. It reuses grounds from Alterra Coffee and waste from Lakefront Brewery.
And many of those companies are now coming to Growing Power to learn how to make their own operations less wasteful and more sustainable. Top regional executives of Wal-Mart recently approached Growing Power for advice on how to improve their sustainability practices and engage more with their communities to overcome negative public attitudes.
“They are not doing this purely out of the goodness of their hearts,” Allen says. “They realize they are going to have to become more sustainable to be competitive.”
A Biracial Family
One of the best things that happened to Allen through all the troubles at Miami was meeting his wife, Cynthia. She was a white student whose family were longtime owners of Ray Bussler’s Restaurant in Oak Creek. Ray himself had played professional football in the 1940s for the old Chicago Cardinals. Will and Cynthia got married in their sophomore year.
“A lot of people ask how we could get married in the South back in those days,” Allen says. “Miami was a little different. It wasn’t like North Florida, where they might have burned our house down.
“As far as her family being accepting, eventually, yes. When they first found out we were getting married, they tried to talk her out of it. They thought there were going to be difficulties for her.”
But Cynthia’s parents also had raised her not to think negatively about people of color, he says. Will says he tried to teach his children the same racial attitudes he learned from his parents.
“I grew up in a very diverse area,” he says. “It was never brought up in our household that we were any different from anybody else.”
Allen also passed on his father’s insistence that children learn to farm.
“I did not really enjoy doing that work,” says Erika, who got a bachelor’s degree at the Art Institute of Chicago and a master’s degree in art therapy from the University of Illinois. “I wanted to read and make art. But we didn’t have any other farm labor, so it was just me and my brother and sister and mom and dad.”
Erika’s brother, Jason, remembers coming home from grade school to help his dad fulfill a contract to deliver half-a-hundred 50-pound bags of cabbage every week to a customer.
“In the fall, it was cold and wet, and we’d have to go out and cut cabbage, wash it, bag it. And my dad was just relentless,” Jason says. “At the time, you’re mad, but now we joke about it at family holidays. He was just trying to instill that work ethic. It made me the person I am today.”
Today, Jason is a top attorney, a partner at Foley & Lardner specializing in mergers and acquisitions.
“My dad would always impress upon me that someday I would thank him,” Erika says. “He said other people wouldn’t have any idea where food came from or how to do this kind of work and it would be really valuable. I definitely have seen that play itself out.”
In fact, Erika is the only child who followed her father into the family business. Managing Growing Power’s Chicago office, she adds “artistic twists,” as she puts it, to urban farm projects by incorporating public art and other design elements. Growing Power has been creating projects in Chicago parks and neighborhoods since 2002.
“Urban farm projects also can be really beautiful aesthetically and impact people spiritually,” Erika says. “Vegetable gardens not only feed communities, but also improve the look of urban neighborhoods.”
Erika cites Growing Power’s 20,000- square-foot urban garden in Grant Park on Chicago’s lakefront. It includes more than 150 varieties of heirloom vegetables, herbs and edible flowers arranged with varying patterns of leaf shapes, colors and textures.
From the beginning, the concept at Growing Power always included teaching teenagers from some of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods how to grow their own food. The community garden near the former Cabrini-Green public housing project in Chicago is one example.
“A lot of our youth have gang affiliations and come from really hard backgrounds,” says Erika. “We’re really building their ability to function in the world and to be self-sufficient.”
“I always ask kids to tell me how they feel when they have a really good meal,” Will Allen recounts. “They always say, ‘Well, when we go over to Grandma’s house at Thanksgiving or Christmas, we feel really happy afterward.’ And then I say, ‘How do you feel when you have a bad meal?’ And they always say, ‘Oh, you mean like at school?’
“Kids are telling us how powerful food is. So why do we try to feed kids on 75 cents a day in schools? I’ve seen how food transforms the lives of the kids we work with.”
With his still-imposing size and physique, emphasized by the Growing Power sweatshirts he wears with cut-off sleeves, Allen can intimidate even the toughest teenagers.
“My employees say I’m scaring the kids. I guess it gets their attention,” he says. “But what really works with kids is being honest. I say, ‘There’s no radios. No cell phones. This isn’t a place to play. It’s a place to learn.’ Tell them up-front what the rules are and they know it’s part of the deal.”
For all of Allen’s hobnobbing with presidents, academics and high-powered executives, his most important connections remain those with ordinary folks like Sharon and Larry Adams. The Adamses are rebuilding the Lindsay Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee’s North Side through their Walnut Way Conservation Corp. The once-crime-ridden area is now getting funding from the 10-year, $50 million project by real estate developer and philanthropist Joseph Zilber to improve poor neighborhoods in Milwaukee.
Larry remembers the first time they took Allen around the block in 2001 to share their vision for the neighborhood. “This was when it was still open violence, gunplay and prostitution,” Larry says. “Will walked the block with us and said, ‘I don’t know, man. This is kind of crazy.’ ”
They started out planting tulips to add beauty. Then Allen brought in his worms and compost-rich soil for backyard gardens. He trained neighbors how to raise their own healthy food. Whatever produce they didn’t consume, they could sell at Growing Power. A neighborhood once considered a deficit is now producing a bounty.
But for Allen to continue forging such relationships, he needs money. He estimates revenue from his lectures, educational sessions (ranging from a one-day workshop to a five-month training course), hands-on assistance building greenhouses and aquaponic systems, sale of soil and compost, and wholesale and retail sales of fish and produce accounts for more than half of Growing Power’s annual budget.
“To survive as a nonprofit these days,” he says, “we have to grow some of our own money, instead of just writing for grants.”
Interesting new revenue sources could include a book Allen is taking time off to work on with a New York writer and a possible reality TV series about food production focusing on Growing Power. An agent is shopping the project to cable TV venues.
Suddenly, the cause for which Allen has long been a national advocate – growing food locally – is hot. Ironically, at the very point rural farmland is rapidly disappearing, “Buy Local” is becoming a popular catchphrase.
“At one time in our history, that’s how we fed ourselves,” he says. “Then we started carting food 1,500 miles across the country with energy we don’t have anymore.”
But Will Allen has the remedy. It’s simple, really. All you need is some worms.
Joel McNally is a contributing writer for Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at