For nearly 25 years, the urban farming nonprofit Growing Power taught kids and adults on Milwaukee’s northwest side to grow and consume local food. The project was the brainchild of Will Allen, who earned international recognition and a MacArthur genius award for his work.
But a year ago, Growing Power buckled under a shroud of debt and legal action. The board of directors voted to dissolve the nonprofit.
While issues surrounding Growing Power continue to be sorted out, Allen continues growing on the grounds of the former nonprofit.
Allen and his work are the subject of a feature in the October issue of Milwaukee Magazine. We spoke with him at length, as well, in conjunction with that article.
Inside one of the greenhouses, is a tank teeming with 1,400 perch. Raising fish – early on tilapia and more recently lake perch – in closed loop systems is one of Growing Power’s success stories. Water circulates, carrying fish waste to fertilize plants, which in turn clean the water.
Allen says he, in partnership with UWM’S School of Freshwater Sciences, has trained more than 500 people to duplicate this method for raising fish.
The work is part of what was the hallmark of Growing Power — growing healthy food and mentoring people along the way.
Allen says he was dealing with health issues last fall when, as he puts it “our board shut us down in November." But by January, Allen was back putting the greenhouses on West Silver Spring back in order. He intends to keep up the tradition but as a for-profit operation.
And the greenhouses are full of life. You find okra growing at the end of one and eggplant at the end of another. Two fig trees flourish in the center of another greenhouse.
“I set them in here in two pots. They grew out of the pots. Now, each produces over 1,000 figs a year,” Allen says.
He’s experimenting with growing hemp. When he perfects the growing system, Allen wants to produce and sell CBD oil.
“These are all female plants. Female plant is where you get the energy. This is what they turn into oil,” Allen says.
Clean soil is important for growing hemp, he says, because the plants takes up whatever is in the soil. And Allen prides himself on his signature soil.
“We do the compost first and then we put worms in our compost and break it down and that’s what you’re seeing over here,” he explains.
While Allen says his family has farmed for 400 years, Growing Power sprouted unexpectedly.
He bought Growing Powers' three acres in 1993. It was Milwaukee’s last remaining farm. Allen says unemployment was high and fresh, healthy food nonexistent.
“So, I started hiring kids and working with kids and a friend said, 'you should turn this into a nonprofit,' and I didn’t know anything about nonprofits. So, I said 'well, if you guys want to be the board and raise the money,' because my whole thing is I’m a farmer — I want to do the work and I want do the training of people in the community,” he recalls.
Allen says in the 25 years Growing Power was operating, the non-profit trained thousands of people to become urban farmers and launched related businesses.
He says his mission remains constant.
“What I’d like to do is pass on my knowledge to anybody who wants to learn how to grow food,” Allen says.
And he wants to see these greenhouses continue to hum with life. Allen considers the 1920s era structures to be a landmark.
He has his eye out for the next generation of entrepreneurs. Allen recently took a few young men under his wing. They hope to raise sturgeon with the goal of harvesting their eggs for caviar.
“We try to help anybody and everybody that can convince me that they’re serious. If you’re not serious, you’re not worth the work,” Allen says.
Legal issues remain unresolved – mainly surrounding unpaid bills. WUWM reached out to former Growing Power board members but all declined to comment.
Allen, meanwhile, steers away from discussing the matters that led to the board's decision to dissolve Growing Power nearly a year ago.
Needless to say, it’s uncertain whether this three-acre farm will remain under Will Allen’s stewardship.
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