Integrating Organic Farming Across the U.S. with Growing Power’s Will Allen

October 2, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and today we’re so honored to have with us today Will Allen. He’s a farmer. He’s the founder of CEO of Growing Power. Welcome to Green is Good, Will Allen. WILL ALLEN: Great to be here talking to you today. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Will, you have a fascinating background and you know, I’m going to let you tell the story, but I am going to say at one point in your life in 2008, you did get the John D. and Catherine T. Macarthur Foundation Fellow, which is called really a Genius Grant, but beyond that, which is just amazing stuff in life, I want you to share your journey a little bit before you founded Growing Power and why then you did found Growing Power. WILL ALLEN: Okay, I’ll do the best I can in a short time that we have because it’s been a long journey that really started with the legacy of my family from South Carolina that moved to Maryland right outside of Washington, DC, in the border with Maryland. I grew up on a farm there and I pretty much learned a lot that I’m passing on to others from my earliest remembrance of maybe around five years old. I actually started helping my parents grow food and along that continuum, I did that through, of course, grade school and high school and I started playing sports. I played baseball at first and then I discovered basketball at about 13 years old and I started playing against college players at American University in DC. The coach at that time, I got a job on campus and started playing against college guys and by the time I was 15, I was a pretty accomplished player in terms of being able to compete and even though I only had a short period of time actually playing basketball, I became a high school All American and the first player in the Washington, DC, metro area to win. That’s the metropolitan. It’s the top 10 players. I was in high school and then I had over 100 scholarship offers. It came down to selecting between the University of Indiana and Bloomington University and University of Miami and Houston and I decided to go to Miami in 1967 and I was the first African American basketball player there in 1967 and was there until ’71 and got drafted by the Baltimore Bullets and the Miami Floridians in American basketball. There were 10 professional leagues at that time and then I played for the Miami Floridians and I went to Europe and played in Belgium where I ended my career and then I came back to The States and to Wisconsin where my wife lived and we settled there and when I left high school, the kids said never again will our lives be this fun but once I got reconnected to farming in Europe and I actually as I was playing basketball helped one of my Belgian teammates have a little farm and that was a transformative moment and I started actually growing food in Belgium and had 25 chickens and a big garden and I would feed the other American players on the other teams on Thanksgiving and Christmas because Belgium is such a small country that everybody knew everybody so here I was doing the same thing that my family did, grew food and fed family and extended family back in Maryland. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, you had it in your DNA, so there was no getting that DNA out of you. WILL ALLEN: No, we go back over 400 years farming. My father was a sharecropper who dropped his plow in the thirties and moved to the DC area. My mother also was a sharecropper. JOHN SHEGERIAN: They would have been proud to see you at the White House with Michelle Obama when she was kicking off the Let’s Move and you were there with her, huh? WILL ALLEN: Yeah, I think they’re looking down and they’re probably quite proud that I’m carrying on the family legacy of farming and passing it on to my kids and grandkids. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How did you start Growing Power? How was that founded and what year was that founded? WILL ALLEN: Well actually, I bought the last remaining farm back in 1993. It was founding 100 acres out in Oakridge Ranch, which is a suburb of Milwaukee, and I was looking for a place to sell my farm produce and I found this last remaining farm on Silver Spring Drive and the city owned it. They had repossessed it for taxes and it was part of farming legacy in the northwest side of Milwaukee and it was the last remaining piece. Some old greenhouse that were pretty run down and I was able to kind of trick a bank into giving me a loan but then people thought here’s this guy starting urban agriculture back 20 years ago. Then it wasn’t something that was in the mainstream so I got a bank that I was able to talk into giving me a loan and use my retirement package from Procter and Gamble. I didn’t work that many years but I had a little bit of retirement and I cashed that in and I drove by the place and my plan was to sell my farm produce from my farm and about two years into the project, I helped a youth group who wanted to grow an organic garden and I had some space behind the greenhouses and that’s how I got sucked into starting this nonprofit that now has grown to 25 farms, about 140 employees, 200 acres of outside production and about 25 acres of greenhouses and we’re doing work throughout the U.S. and outside of the U.S. training a lot of farmers who want to get involved in growing food in small spaces in urban communities, suburban communities, and rural communities that are also devastated by industrial agriculture. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Will, can you share your concept and your campaign to build a five-story vertical farm? What’s a vertical farm and what was your inspiration behind that? WILL ALLEN: Well, there were a lot of people talking about vertical farms and we actually, it was our organization groove. We didn’t have administration space so I thought before anybody builds these 1,500 vertical farms, we really need to quantify really how to grow inside a vertical farm, which would be kind of like greenhouses stacked on top of each other and using vertical space rather than horizontal space. When you look at cities like New York and Tokyo and Boston and Vancouver and San Francisco, for the people, they don’t have a lot of space like we have in Detroit, where we have 90 square miles of vacant lands and Chicago’s 33 square miles of vacant land and 77,000 different lots, thousands of vacant lots and there’s industrial-based farms and industrial-based communities. If we’re going to grow locally, which we should because it’s just unsustainable the way that we’re growing and shipping food today, we gotta go vertical but we have to prove that this really can care for you, that people can make money doing it, that it makes sense, and we started by building a 100-story building and there’s not a lot of expertise in terms of how to grow and vegetables even inside regular greenhouse, much less vertical farms. We need to grow a lot of farmers to be able to do this and train a lot of farmers because this is a different type of farming than my grandfather’s farming or my father’s farming. It’s using more intensive production and less space and making sure you have the right amount of soil fertility in the limited fertility you’re using to be able to maximize the nutrition of the food that you’re growing because that’s really where the rubber meets the road is in the nutrition of our food. It’s not that we can grow a lot of food, but it’s about the nutritional value of the food that we eat that makes the difference in our health, so that’s one of the things that we’re working on with the medical community and a lot of other folks to really quantify the nutritional value of the food that we grow versus food that’s coming in from outside of our community. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Will, we read that you grow your own soil. What does that mean? I don’t understand that term. Can you explain to our listeners? And, by the way, for our listeners out there, we’ve got Will Allen on. He’s the founder and CEO of Growing Power. You can go to his wonderful website and learn all about these amazing things that Will is up to with all of his farms across the nation. It’s GrowingPower.org. Will, what’s this about growing your own soil? Can you explain that? WILL ALLEN: Well, I kind of coined that phrase, ‘growing soil’ and it’s really composting. It’s where you take carbon and nitrogen waste that’s come into the landfill and composting it and using that to grow food on top of asphalt, concrete, and hard surfaces, incorporating it into rural farmland to grow without chemicals and to have high fertility soil and that’s how you get it, by taking fauna into this landfill and taking carbon and things like wood chips and leaves and paper and things like brewery waste on the nitrogen side, which we have a lot in Milwaukee and we’re dealing with a lot of microbreweries and Miller, of course, so we composted last year fruit waste. Fruits and vegetables, we composted 40 million pounds in carbon and nitrogen into thousands of yards of compost so we don’t grow on existing soil. We put two feet of new soil on top of asphalt, concrete, rooftops to be able to grow our food. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, got it, got it. Will, we’re down to the last three minutes or so. What are some of your exciting projects that you’re excited about in the city of Milwaukee? What’s coming up that you’re pumped about? WILL ALLEN: Well, we just launched a project recently where I wanted to really start something that’s at daycares because daycare is always in session for schools. We work with schools and we do school gardens and get our food into the Milwaukee Public Schools but we wanted to do daycares so I had a press conference and we announced that we put in food gardens at daycares and basically, we’re going to start out with just these 4 by 4, 6 by 6 gardens with our compost and plant about three or four cherry tomatoes and three or four Roma tomatoes and this will get preschoolers a chance to go out when those tomatoes mature and be able to eat them and get them started on eating some food that’s good for them. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We have two minutes left. Any tips for our listeners out there that want to farm? That want to learn to be a farmer or they want to do some urban farming or be part of what you’re doing at Growing Power and GrowingPower.org? WILL ALLEN: Well, I would say for them to seek out some hands-on training. You can’t learn how to farm in a classroom. You have to go out and do it and practice the art of growing food this way intensively and start out by getting some good soil. A lot of times, you have to start out by growing your soil a year before you actually go plant, so that’s the most important thing because the soil in the cities and even in a suburban and rural communities is contaminated so you have to get through that test and be able to grow new soil and be able to grow this high-nutritional food that we need to grow. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re down to the last minute, Will. Any last thoughts? You’ve led a fascinating life. You broke the racial barriers. You’ve had tremendous success from bottom to top. Any last thoughts for our listeners out there? WILL ALLEN: Well, I think we’re always involved in the food system whether we like it or not. We have to eat food to survive and I would seek out locally grown foods, support those farmers, whether they’re rural or urban farmers, suburban farmers. Support them and go to farmer’s markets. Get involved. There are so many ways to get involved. Volunteer. We get thousands of volunteers through our organization. People really like to volunteer and help and become a part but look for local food labels at your grocery stores. Go to farmer’s markets. Go to farm stands in your communities. Help youth who are trying to get involved. Get your kids eating food at a very early age, even when they’re at prenatal stage. Eat good food. Try to eat food without chemicals. Only about 2% of the food in the nation is organic so we really need to grow that sector. It’s important for us to be very proactive and get involved because good food is our medicine. If everybody can remember that, then we can end this health care crisis in America. That’s always a way to get out of a health care crisis is by eating good food and having a healthy body. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well thank you, Will, and please, for our listeners out there, get involved at GrowingPower.org. Support Will Allen’s great organization. The world needs more Will Allens. Will Allen, you’re an inspiring innovator and sustainability superstar and truly living proof that green is good. WILL ALLEN: Thank you very much.