Day 3: Will Power!

Sep 19, 2011 by

Day 3: Will Power!

He came, he saw, he loved our farmers market!

“Genius” farmer Will Allen of Milwaukee, Wis. (he’s only the second farmer to have been awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant), made a very special visit to Port Townsend Saturday to be the keynote speaker on on Day 3 of the Northwest Earth Institute conference.

The “good food revolution” founder‘s schedule was booked: first with an interview on KPTZ and then back-to-back Q&A sessions with a group of 20 young people interested in food activism, then with 65 local farmers—sandwiched around lunch at the Port Townsend Farmers Market. (He had a Bavarian bratwurst, with mayo, in case you’re wondering.)

The 500 people who filled McCurdy Pavilion at Fort Worden to hear his evening talk were delighted to hear Will compliment our beloved market.

“You guys are fortunate to have one of the best farmers markets I’ve seen—and I’ve visited almost every city in America!” Will said to enthusiastic applause.

“I can see the closeness between the folks in town and these rural farmers,” he went on, emphasizing that strong relationships between eaters and their local farmers are the backbone of the new food system we need to build in America and around the world. His vision is that everyone in the world has access to healthy, culturally appropriate food.

Urban farming pioneer
In order to make that happen, Will says, we need to replace the industrial food system with strong, closely spaced networks of local food. This means growing food year-round in North America, by building hoop houses and heating them with composting hot mix and solar energy. This means training legions of new farmers. This means reclaiming farmland wherever we can. And this requires action today—not a few decades from now.

“We have to become less idealistic,” he urged. “There is no perfect time to start. You just do it.

“And you learn from it. And if you’re passionate enough to stay in the game, you can be successful.”

This former pro basketball player, ex-corporate sales leader and son of a sharecropper has found his lasting success as the CEO of Growing Power. As a pioneer in “urban farming,” he has successfully built small but diverse and intensively cultivated farms in the middle of Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland and many other midwestern and southern cities, and connected poor residents with fresh, healthy and really local food.

One of his distinctive techniques is planting right on top of pavement, by laying down 8 inches of wood chips and 18-24 inches of compost. “It’s all about the soil,” he repeated many times, and since urban soil is often contaminated, he always mounds up.

The descriptions of his composting and (worm-assisted) vermicomposting operations were truly awe-inspiring, and provide models I could see replicated in our community or any other. The techniques are simple, and sourcing nitrogen and carbon sources for composting (like coffee grounds, cardboard, outdated produce and brewery waste) is an opportunity for “building relationships that lead to partnerships,” as he puts it.

Food as social justice
Growing Power’s flagship Community Food Center is five blocks away from Milwaukee’s largest housing project. Before this retail food store opened, those thousands of people lived in a “food desert,” with the nearest grocery store four miles away. Convenience marts and fast-food restaurants were the only places to buy food, if you can call it that. That’s what Will means when he talks about fighting for social justice through growing food.

Part of his approach is hiring young people from the neighborhoods around his farms. As I learned from sitting in on his teen Q&A, youth are guaranteed a job for five years if they’ll stick it out, at the end of which time they are called “beginning farmers.” Their starting salary is $25,000.

After spinning our heads with photos and statistics from dozens of successful projects around the country, Will surprised us by admitting he feels his work is just getting started.

“We’re in just the infancy stages of this work we’re doing,” he said. “We have an awful lot of people to feed and infrastructure to build.”

His newest project is called “20,000 Backyard Gardens,” and aims to get that many going in his home region of southeast Wisconsin.

“We need 50 million new people growing food,” he asserted. And before we gave him a standing ovation, Will urged us to start gardening programs for our children as early as preschool, and to get busy planting our backyards and community gardens, wherever we can shoehorn them into our landscape, so we can access the freshest, most nutritious food possible.

Now, wouldn’t that patch of lawn behind City Hall make a nice vegetable garden…? Mayor Sandoval asked a question about the logistics of farming in public spaces, so I think she’s mulling it over.

P.S. Growing Power has branched out to create 15 regional outreach training centers for its farming methods, but as of yet there are none on the west coast (the closest one is in Denver). That could change, as one conference attendee from Oregon announced his goal was to open the first west coast Growing Power training center in his hometown.


This is the third post in my role as Guest Blogger for the conference, and it will be cross-posted on NWEI’s EarthMatters blog. Enjoy!


  1. Bill and Ann Testerman

    Hearing Will’s talk and seeing his presentation was nothing short of awe inspiring. His vision is to make us all farmers, if only in a very small scale, to appreciate the food we eat and what it takes to get it to our table. Getting young people involved in the process is a great start as they are our future, but not matter what our age is, we all can pitch in and do our part.

    • After Will’s visit to Port Townsend, the Leader newspaper published an interesting first-person perspective written by two of the young “food activists” who had a chance to sit and talk with him.

      The authors are Brainstorm for Education students, and this past year they have been studying food and how it moves in and out of our community, meeting with local farmers and food producers. What a great real-world project!

      Read the article.

  2. Just found your blog from the newspaper article! Well done. I have been house sitting in Sequim since last December and have only just discovered Paul Gautschi up here and his farming methods. Do you know him? A movie has just been made about him called and you can view it for free. It seems he is doing things that are absolutely non labor intensive – like the wood chips and paper. No one seems to be raving about this around Sequim and I wonder why not? I buy most of my produce from Nash’s organic farm, but I’m going to talk to him about Paul’s methods….maybe Nash already uses them. I am very much into healthy eating and love what you’ve started with your blog. Good luck!

  3. I recently read Will’s 2012 book/memoir, The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People and Communities. His background growing up on a farm, playing professional basketball, and working in sales before returning to farming (in a whole new way) was fascinating. And his passion for transforming communities through food is inspiring! I recommend it.