Growing food, growing people

Urban-farming authority Will Allen delivers wide-ranging talk at Chico State

Urban-farming authority Will Allen stands outside Chico State’s Bell Memorial Union, where he delivered an inspiring talk on Feb. 7.

Urban-farming authority Will Allen stands outside Chico State’s Bell Memorial Union, where he delivered an inspiring talk on Feb. 7.

photo by claire hutkins seda

Find out more:
Go to to learn more about Will Allen’s nonprofit organization, Growing Power. Buy Allen’s new book, The Good Food Revolution, at Lyon Books (121 W. Fifth St., 891-3338).

It’s hard to pin down Will Allen, the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Growing Power, Inc., a Milwaukee, Wis.-based farm and community food center. Although Allen is widely known for his work as the United States’ foremost urban farmer, it’s not fair to say that he’s only farming.

“We’re not just growing food, but growing people,” Allen said to a crowd of about 200 last Thursday morning, Feb. 7, during his wide-ranging talk at Chico State’s Bell Memorial Union Auditorium. Allen sped through 1,000 slides that detailed the many diverse projects Growing Power has taken on, working toward its vision of helping to build communities with food systems that “are equitable and ecologically sound; creating a just world, one food-secure community at a time.”

Allen’s first farm, a 3-acre Milwaukee property he purchased with his own money in 1993, is the headquarters for the quickly morphing Growing Power organization, which boasts urban, semi-urban and rural farms, training centers, compost farms and more, in several states as well as internationally.

“It’s not just inner city, not just urban. It’s rural communities that are hurting as well,” Allen noted.

Since the early days of his farm, Allen has taught gardening skills to inner-city kids, both from the street and from juvenile detention. In the last 20 years, he’s spearheaded garden projects all over his state—at a retirement home, a cemetery and a firehouse, and in school yards, low-income housing projects, business parks, empty lots and run-down factories, to name a few. Growing Power brings its own compost and dumps it right on top of the soil, or the asphalt, or the old factory floor, to help mitigate the chances of lead- and arsenic-contaminated soil affecting the quality of vegetables.

Allen and his organization’s team have developed “40 different income streams”—from worm castings to salad mixes available in the dead of winter—that provide 50 percent of the nonprofit’s income, the rest coming from grants and donations.

That diversity of income is reflected in the diversity on the farm: vermiculture (worm composting); large-scale composting (resulting in 40 million pounds of “food residue” being diverted away from landfills last year alone); rainwater catchment; a 110,000-gallon aquaponic system growing greens and fish; goat and chicken tending, mushroom growing; energy generation through passive solar, solar panels, and an anaerobic digester; and thousands of pounds of vegetables growing are activities all occurring simultaneously on the farm. Daily public tours, internships, and regular workshops have made the Growing Power farm a national training center on urban agriculture.

Even more amazing is what’s happening off the farm. Community farms have sprung up in the roughest areas of Detroit and Chicago, thanks to Growing Power. Allen made inroads with mega-corporation Sysco, one of the country’s largest food distributors, which led to 250,000 pounds of carrots being delivered to school cafeterias in one year. He and his team worked to build the curriculum for an agriculturally focused middle school in Milwaukee. He’s working with local medical schools to determine nutritional differences in food grown cleanly and locally, versus grown in a conventional monoculture farm and shipped in.

His newest venture is a five-story “vertical farm” in Milwaukee, with south-facing greenhouses on every level.

Allen’s talk was sponsored by the Butte County Farm Bureau in conjunction with Chico State’s College of Agriculture.

“We represent all farmers, regardless of your scope and your scale. … We hope that this [talk from Allen] will push that message,” explained Colleen Cecil, the Farm Bureau’s executive director, following Allen’s speech.

Cecil said she first heard of Allen last year on a network television show—he has been covered by media outlets for, among other things, winning a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2008, and being named one of the world’s 100 most-influential people by Time magazine in 2010.

“He’s a farmer just like everybody else—he just does it differently,” said Cecil. “He is just as passionate about how he farms as every one of the farmers in Butte County is,” even if his style of farming, the community, the climate, and the scale may differ greatly from Butte County farms. “It’s a great opportunity for our Butte County farmers to see it differently.”

Veronica Vazquez, a senior majoring in animal science, appreciated his focus on getting healthful food to low-income people. “Especially being a student on a budget, it’s like, do I want to spend an extra two dollars on organic stuff, or load up on junk food?”

Two-year-old Kaeda Wells, the youngest member of the audience, munched on a bagel as her parents Serra and Satyr Wells—urban farmers themselves on a two-thirds-acre home-farm on 12th Avenue—spoke about Allen.

“Part of what’s so inspiring about him is how dialed in you can get with your resources,” said Serra. “To go from … growing your own food, but also catching your own water that feeds the food, to growing your own soil, to the mushrooms and the aquaponics. … It takes a long time to get there, but once you see the symbiotic nature of all of it, you can’t help but get into the next thing” needed to make a farm its own ecosystem.

After his talk, Allen signed copies of his new autobiography, The Good Food Revolution, and talked to eager fans like Lee Altier, a core member of local nonprofit coalition Cultivating Community NV, aimed at building a strong community based on healthful, locally grown food.

“What you’ve done to inspire people and pull it all together was inspiring,” Altier said to Allen. “Clearly you’ve built a lot of momentum.”

Gary Nelson, a junior public-relations major at Chico State with an environmental-studies minor, inquired about summer internships. He had stumbled across Growing Power while watching YouTube videos on gardening, and was also inspired.

“Food is one of the quickest ways to build community,” Nelson said. “Everyone needs it, and it’s a communal act, as Will said.”