Will Allen

Mil­wau­kee’s ur­ban ag pi­o­neer farms on in the wake of his now-de­funct non­profit, Grow­ing Power.

Milwaukee Magazine - - DEPARTMENTS - BY DAN SIM­MONS

For this new vari­ant on our monthly Big Story, we chat with the ur­ban farmer af­ter the ugly pub­lic di­vorce from his non­profit, Grow­ing Power.

Will Allen has long been Mil­wau­kee’s most fa­mous farmer. Preach­ing and teach­ing sus­tain­able, pes­ti­cide-free ur­ban agri­cul­ture, he built his North­west Side-based non­profit, Grow­ing Power, into a glob­ally rec­og­nized leader in the field and along the way saw his own pro­file grow to in­ter­na­tional di­men­sions.

When news dropped last Novem­ber that, af­ter nearly a quar­ter-cen­tury, Grow­ing Power had dis­solved in a cloud of un­paid bills and lin­ger­ing le­gal ac­tion, it stunned many ad­mir­ers of Allen and his farm. It also raised ques­tions about what’s next.

In the in­au­gu­ral Mil­Mag In­ter­view, Allen re­veals that he’s still do­ing what he’s al­ways done, where he’s al­ways done it. He also talks goats, the down­side of non­prof­its, the in­dig­ni­ties of ag­ing and how com­fort comes from cast­ing about in the man-made pond at his home.

MM: Catch me up on what your daily life looks like th­ese days.

WA: So I’ve been here [at the farm that’s still owned by Grow­ing Power on Sil­ver Spring Drive] ev­ery day since Jan­uary. Seven days a week. We have a farm in Oak Creek and I’m op­er­at­ing that, too. I start my day out there and then I come out here af­ter that. It’s kind of like go­ing back to when I first started. For the first two years, it started out as Will’s Road­side Farm, back in 1993. That was be­fore we be­came Grow­ing Power, a non­profit.

Are you con­fi­dent this for-profit com­pany (Will’s Road­side Farms & Mar­kets) is vi­able?

Yeah, we have many of our orig­i­nal cus­tomers and we have got­ten a lot of peo­ple to come and vol­un­teer their ser­vices. That’s how we’re get­ting stuff done. Be­cause we have so many vol­un­teers. So many peo­ple are so loyal to the mis­sion. Once they found out that I was back, they came to me and said, “How can I help?” So that’s been very re­fresh­ing and very help­ful.

I un­der­stand the prop­erty is in fore­clo­sure, but the bank has given you per­mis­sion to farm the land as it goes through the le­gal process with Grow­ing Power. Is there a chance you’ll buy it again?

Ah, I don’t want to. Most farm­ers lease their prop­erty. I owned this for many, many years [be­fore sell­ing it to Grow­ing Power in 2014]. I don’t know that I want to own it again. But I do want to farm here, be­cause this is a his­toric place. We’re work­ing right now with MSOE [where he is a guest lec­turer] to have this de­clared a cul­tural, his­tor­i­cal place.

Does the neigh­bor­hood (near the West­lawn Gar­dens hous­ing project) fac­tor into your de­ci­sion to stay put?

Yes, it does. You have to travel miles east and west to get to a gro­cery store. There’s noth­ing in this com­mu­nity [for fresh pro­duce] other than here. Where I live in Oak Creek, we’ve got five gro­cery stores within a mile of my house. That’s al­ways been part of my mis­sion and my fam­ily’s mis­sion, to bring healthy food into th­ese peo­ple’s lives.

How does it feel to be 69?

I came from a ru­ral farm­ing back­ground [in Mary­land]; most farm­ers farm un­til they die. You have to have pas­sion to do this work.

It’s very phys­i­cal work. Are you still able to do all the things you used to do?

Well, in my mind I can, but of course not. It takes a lot longer to do things I used to do very quickly. In the fall I had some med­i­cal is­sues. I had to get my parathy­roid re­moved. No cal­cium was go­ing into my bones, so I was hav­ing some pretty se­vere prob­lems. I got op­er­ated on in De­cem­ber. And then I had an­other is­sue re­lated to that, I had a large stone in my blad­der that was the size of an os­trich egg, and I had to get that taken care of. About that time we were go­ing through all of this with the [Grow­ing Power] board kind of dis­ap­pear­ing and leav­ing things in flux.

Elab­o­rate on that with the board dis­ap­pear­ing. What hap­pened?

First of all, they sold all of our goats. We had some heir­loom goats that I had started years ago from one goat. His name was Oak­ley. He was the fa­ther, grand­fa­ther and great-grand­fa­ther of all the goats over the years. And we had up to 60 goats at one point. When the board dis­solved, they said, “We’re go­ing to get rid of ev­ery­thing and close down,” they just made a phone call, one of the board mem­bers to a sale barn. And some­body came and picked up all of the goats.

So one day you had the goats, and when you came back they were gone?

Yeah. At that time I was pretty sick. When I came back, they told me that they got rid of the goats. So that was pretty sad, be­cause a lot of peo­ple were con­nected to the goats. It was pretty dev­as­tat­ing.

And you weren’t con­sulted at all about it? No. If you had been con­sulted, what would you have told them?

Well, I would’ve told them not to shut the place down be­cause they didn’t even have the skill set to shut the place down prop­erly. They didn’t do their due dili­gence.

With the way things ended, is this some­thing that you are go­ing to take le­gal ac­tion about?

Pos­si­bly. I re­ally don’t want to talk about it at this point.

[Ed­i­tor’s note: Mil­wau­kee Mag­a­zine sought com­ment from sev­eral for­mer Grow­ing Power board mem­bers. The only mem­ber to re­spond in time, Kate Meyer, de­clined to com­ment.]

Over the years you be­came quite fa­mous, not just here but ev­ery­where. How did that change you or how peo­ple in­ter­act with you?

It was a mostly pos­i­tive thing. It brought a lot of at­ten­tion to the move­ment. I hear from peo­ple all the time, ei­ther through the train­ings or the YouTube stuff, that they got in­volved in grow­ing food. And it’s in all com­mu­ni­ties – ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties, ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties. That’s been very sat­is­fy­ing, per­son­ally.

What have you learned about ur­ban farm­ing, on the busi­ness side?

My whole thing was to in­spire en­trepreneurs to do this. It’s got to be done by en­trepreneurs, be­cause they have to put some skin in the game. And you know how non­prof­its are, they change di­rec­tors, they change direc­tions all the time. I don’t think it works. Are non­prof­its nec­es­sary? Yes. But I never thought we could sus­tain it, be­cause we were work­ing with so many dif­fer­ent peo­ple and fund­ing sources. The grants side of things is the tough­est. You have to go out and beg for money all the time, and write pro­pos­als. I had to do that and my farm­ing. And that’s not sus­tain­able. Even­tu­ally it will catch up to you phys­i­cally and men­tally.

What about the work­ing-the-fields side of things?

You hear peo­ple say, “I started a gar­den in my back­yard and I grew 10 tomato plants. Now I’m a farmer.” No, you’re not a farmer. It’s like some­body say­ing, “I went to the ju­nior col­lege and now I’m a doc­tor.” As a farmer you have to go through many years of won­der­ing how to do this cor­rectly. Farm­ing will hum­ble you. It’s an art form. When you’re grow­ing sus­tain­ably, and not us­ing chem­i­cals, you have your ups and downs. You have to fo­cus on the things that are grow­ing best and learn how to work around that.

Any ideas for how to fix that skills gap?

One of the things I’m go­ing to try to work on is to have a mas­ter farmer’s de­gree. I want to get that set up here in Mil­wau­kee, be­cause we re­ally have to de­velop some true farm­ers.

What do you do to re­lax?

I like to fish. I grew up fish­ing and farm­ing. My fa­ther was an out­doors­man. That’s how we spent our time. I didn’t have time to fish [while build­ing Grow­ing Power] so I dug my­self a pond and stocked it with lake perch.

Any re­grets look­ing back?

I guess a re­gret is that we didn’t hire bet­ter fi­nan­cial peo­ple and board, be­cause if you’re a non­profit you only go as far as your board. We did this for 23 years. That’s a long time in this busi­ness at the level we were at. I think, for me, there prob­a­bly weren’t enough hours in the day.

“I think, for me, there prob­a­bly weren’t enough hours in the day.”

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