Will Allen gives talk on urban agriculture

Stacey Day

The first thing Will Allen did when he stepped foot in the campus SLUG garden Wednesday, May 20 was grab a pitchfork and start poking our compost piles. “Look at all those happy worms!” he exclaimed, enthusiasm exuding from every inch of his well over six-foot, ex-NBA-player frame.
Later that evening in the chapel, Allen explained that he was part of “a movement about good food, and how to get good food to all people equally.”
He painted a dark picture of our mono-crop industrial agriculture system and both its current failures and inevitable downfall: “Right now what we’ve got is a large welfare system just barely keeping a bad food system afloat.”
In response to this dismal system, Allen purchased the last farm within the city limits of Milwaukee in 1993 and began growing and selling vegetables, employing local youth and teaching them gardening skills in a program called “Growing Power.”
Now, with 35 full-time employees and countless volunteers, Growing Power has gained such prestige and influence that the program was contracted by the City of Chicago to transform two acres of Grant Park into a community garden. There are now outreach programs everywhere from Ukraine to Kenya to London to New Orleans to the state of Georgia.
Humbly accounting for the strong response in the Milwaukee community and elsewhere that has allowed Growing Power to thrive, he said, “It’s just amazing how spiritual it is when you work with the soil; good things will happen.”
Allen said, “We need to grow farmers,” explaining his strong emphasis on community education.
Allen set up programs to keep kids off the streets and teach them life skills at Growing Power. The farm has academic tutoring programs, which encourage research and writing about what’s happening in the garden. Over the summer, Growing Power employs hundreds of teens caring for city beautification projects, such as gardens along city sidewalks and on street dividers.
However, what Allen was undoubtedly most enthusiastic about was his compost and the worms that inhabit it, which he referred to as his “most precious livestock.” As an all-organic farming program, the only fertilizer Growing Power uses is worm castings, harvested through an intense process of vermiculture in contained bins.
Allen informed his audience that one pound of worms can create 15 pounds of castings in a single week, and that worms’ intestines kill E. coli.
His zeal for his composting and wiggly livestock was contagious, provoking audience questions about the raw components of his compost: coffee grounds from Alterra, brewery refuse – the barley and hops after brewing – and moldy hay bought from local farmers.
Most interesting, though, was the final ingredient: food waste from wholesalers. “Its not too infrequent we’ll drive over to a wholesalers’ and pick up 40,000 lbs of food that was never even taken out of the carton, and we’ll compost it, cartons and all.”
As his presentation of over 500 slides came to a close – “I bet you thought I was joking when I told you that at the beginning of the talk” – Allen reflected on the larger implications of Growing Power’s progress: “We’re not just a bunch of hippies growing food anymore, this is a movement, a mainstream movement. What I’m doing now is trying to pass this all on to the next generation as I hit the sunset of my career.