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