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Across the nation, Will Allen is hailed as an urban farming visionary. Time magazine named him “one of the 100 most influential people in the world.” New York Times Magazine anointed him “the go-to expert on urban farming” And O, The Oprah Magazine declared “Allen is at the forefront of a burgeoning movement.” But on […]

Across the nation, Will Allen is hailed as an urban farming visionary. Time magazine named him “one of the 100 most influential people in the world.” New York Times Magazine anointed him “the go-to expert on urban farming” And O, The Oprah Magazine declared “Allen is at the forefront of a burgeoning movement.”

But on Milwaukee’s near-South Side, the MacArthur “Genius” grant laureate is getting panned. Allen and Growing Power – the urban-agriculture organization he founded and the place where he serves as CEO – had agreed to create a new farmers market for the Walker Square Neighborhood Association. But members say Allen didn’t live up to his promises.

“We want our money back,” says Teng Moua, a vendor at the market and spokesperson-translator for many Hmong farmers who also sell at the market. “They said they would help, but they did not help.”

Bordered by Ninth, 10th, West Mineral and West Washington streets, the market launched in early summer, intending to serve a neighborhood that would have otherwise stood marketless this year. (The successful Mitchell Street Farmers Market went temporarily dark for construction of a new building.)

At a spring neighborhood meeting, Growing Power verbally promised to staff, administer and promote the market. All the vendors had to do was pay a $350 fee. The rest – paperwork, permits, publicity and signage – would be taken care of. Some 20 vendors signed up to sell their wares three days a week. But just weeks into the market’s season, disappointing sales and low turnout led to anger and demands.

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Growing Power “did nothing,” Moua complains. “They ran no commercials; they did no advertising. They just put up a sign at the old location. It looks like it was painted by a child.”

Sour grapes, says Allen, who adds he’s “pretty perturbed” at the accusations. “I don’t think it would be a good precedent to give money back to farmers because they didn’t have a good year. There would be no farmers markets.”

But vendors insist the problem was a lack of promotion. Where was the forceful might of the renowned Milwaukee nonprofit (whose federal tax form shows its total budget for 2009 was $2 million)? Where were the press releases and calendar listings? The online presence and news coverage? Where did the $7,000 in fees go? Nowhere, says Jason Cleereman, an attorney and head of the Walker Square Neighborhood Association. “They are being disingenuous,” he charges.

“We did advertise it, and the customers didn’t come. That’s where the dissatisfaction comes from,” Allen says, adding that Growing Power posted fliers in both the old and new neighborhoods. “There are a lot of factors that dictate whether you have a successful farmers market. Maybe people don’t know where it is, or they are not comfortable in the neighborhood.”

Finally, Allen said this summer, “If Jason wants to take over the market, that’s fine with me.”

So Cleereman did. He made a Facebook page, and by late August, Cleereman’s group cut ties with Growing Power. In late September, just a month before the market closed, he wrangled some local TV coverage.

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The Facebook page had garnered fewer than 100 fans in early fall, but even still, farmer Mai Yang said business improved. Cleereman hopes to continue the market next year, perhaps staffed by farmers who don’t secure choice stalls at the new Mitchell market.

According to Allen, that should have been the group’s approach all along. “In the future,” he predicts, “they are going to do very well.” Perhaps, but it will be without the help of Growing Power.

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