Readers, let me introduce you to Will Allen. If this man’s story doesn’t inspire you, as gardeners and as human beings, nothing will.
Will Allen is the founder of Growing Power, a nonprofit based in Milwaukee and devoted to promoting sustainable urban agriculture. He won a MacArthur genius grant two years ago, is on Time magazine’s list of the most 100 influential people in the world, and has an astounding dream: to build a $10 million vertical farm on the two urban Milwaukee acres that are home to Growing Power’s greenhouses and thriving fishery. The plans for the five-story farm are a thing of beauty, complete with solar panels and a system for capturing runoff to water the plants.
Growing Power started in 1993 to provide urban teenagers a place to work, and to provide themselves and their neighbors with affordable food that wasn’t crap. It’s turned into something much more, with eco-friendly farms in both rural and urban areas, including one adjacent to Chicago’s Cabrini-Green neighborhood. Participants range from urban youth to urban planners. And these kids (and adults) aren’t just doing busy work—they’re providing food for their neighborhoods and learning valuable skills in the bargain, from the science of vermiculture to marketing strategy to aquaponics to apiculture. They raise poultry and livestock, too.
Restaurants committed to serving locally grown food, including Madison’s renowned L’Etoile, buy produce from Growing Power. If you live in Milwaukee, you can buy a market basket of 20 to 25 pounds of seasonal produce—enough to feed four people for a week—for sixteen bucks. Sign me up.
Will is busily spreading his gospel to other urban areas—Seattle, New York, the Twin Cities. Last year, the National Governors Association honored him for distinguished service to state government. He’s a man on a mission. This 2009 excerpt from his blog explains:
For years I have argued that our food system is broken, and I have tried to teach what I believe must be done to fix it. This year, and last, we have begun seeing the unfortunate results of systemic breakdown. We have seen it in higher prices for those who can less afford to pay, in lines at local food pantries, churches and missions, and in the anxious eyes of people who have suddenly become unemployed. We have seen it, too, in nationwide outbreaks of food-borne illness in products as unlikely as spinach and peanuts.
Severe economic recession certainly has not helped matters, but the current economy is not alone to blame. This situation has been spinning toward this day for decades. And while many of my acquaintances tend to point the finger at the big agro-chemical conglomerates as villains, the fault really is with all of us who casually, willingly, even happily surrendered our rights to safe, wholesome, affordable and plentiful food in exchange for over-processed and pre-packaged convenience. …
We have to start subsidizing health and well-being by rewarding sustainable practices in agriculture and assuring a safe, adequate and wholesome food supply to all our citizens. And we need to start this reform process now, as part of the national stimulus toward economic recovery.
He’s accomplished more in seven years than most of us will in a lifetime, and he’s just getting started. And that $10 million vertical farm? I wouldn’t bet against it.