Modernization has enhanced the discovery of new knowledge, and technological advancements are slowly outpacing the agricultural industry as more and more people prefer to work in factories and offices rather than on farms. With this much of a risk, one begins to wonder: what will happen to the agricultural industry?
Despite the declining number of farmers in the past few decades, there has recently been a slow-but-sure renewal of interest in agriculture, thanks to many individuals who have spent their lives promoting farming and showing others how simple and fulfilling it is.
But it is not just Will Allen’s passion for farming that makes him extraordinary – it is an amazing story of how he chose to end his basketball career early to focus on what he believed truly mattered in his life: his love for farming and sharing it with others. Since he began his career as an urban farmer, Will has established a reputation as one of the leading urban farmers in the United States.
“Urban farming;” whenever people in Wisconsin hear these words, they’ll immediately remember Will’s name. Will knows that people living in the city generally do not want to leave their homes to find a suitable piece of land for farming – so, instead of convincing people to try farming the “old-fashioned way,” Will brings farming to where they live through the concept of urban farming: the growing of sustainable food right in your backyard.
Whenever Will is asked why he left his basketball career to start urban farming, he always has one thing to say: to get good food, you have to grow it yourself. For Will, food is a universal conduit that connects all people regardless of race, culture or religion:
“Food is the most important thing in our lives. Even from a culture standpoint, using food to bring people together. Even with groups that don’t get along, food gets people talking. Have a good, healthy meal, and it just puts people at ease. They start working out their issues and problems. It’s such a powerful tool.”
Will Allen was born in 1949 to a couple of sharecroppers who lived in South Carolina before migrating to the north, eventually settling in Rockville, Maryland, where Will was born. Most of the people with whom the Allen family went in the “Great Migration” (as many have called it) were fellow African-Americans who formerly worked as sharecroppers and wanted to escape their difficult lives in the South. And so, upon arriving in a new place, most of those who migrated left the farming industry and went on to explore new opportunities.
Will’s father, however, had other ideas. While many of his friends were seeking other jobs to sustain income, Will’s father continued farming and hoped to pass on his knowledge to his children. As Will later recalled in an interview:
“The fact that my father still wanted to farm was a little unusual because most African Americans who had been involved in sharecropping in the 1930s pretty much wanted to leave behind that painful history. And the fact that my father wanted to pass on his agricultural roots to my brothers and me was unusual...”
Eventually, Will’s parents were able to buy a small piece of land where they lived and started planting their own crops. Will’s parents had a great impact on his life, as they not only gave all the love and care they could to Will and his siblings, but they also taught Will the importance of hard work, being kind to others and even becoming a role model to follow. Will’s family was not rich, but always content with what they had:
“My parents, they didn’t talk about the negative things in their lives. They didn’t complain. My father, my mother—I never heard her complain a day in her life. Learning some of their stories, some of the things they went through, surprised me. They were very revealing and touching in a lot of ways… If at any time, people would show up at our house, we would feed them—family, friends, teenagers when I was in high school. People knew we had the food.”
Growing up, Will learned the importance of eating good food from his parents. In addition, he also witnessed the terrible effects of eating processed and unhealthy food in his own community, as many of his father’s friends who left farming developed diseases in various parts of their bodies. Throughout his life, Will has been very conscious of what he eats, knowing how much food can affect a person’s health.
In high school, Will was an above-average student with a great potential for sports. He loved playing basketball, and his team even won a state championship as he was named the “Most Valuable Player.” After graduating from high school, Will was offered a scholarship by the University of Miami to study Marketing (the course he chose) while playing for the Miami Hurricanes, which made him the first-ever African American to play for the college team. Not long after joining, Will showed his talent by winning several games for the school while keeping high marks in his studies. Will graduated from college and earned his Bachelor’s degree in 1971.
Upon finishing college, many opportunities awaited Will. In the year he graduated, he was included in the NBA Draft and was selected by the Baltimore Bullets in the fourth round. Despite this, Will did not get to play in the NBA; he was instead taken in by another team, “The Floridians,” and played in the 1971-72 season of the now-defunct American Basketball Association. Will played professionally for the next five years – not just in the United States, but also in other countries, such as Belgium. He finally retired in 1977 and moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Will met his wife, Cynthia, while still playing basketball professionally. After they married, Cynthia bore three children: Erika, Jason and Adrianna. Cynthia, who hails from Wisconsin, encouraged Will to pursue his passion for farming and greatly influenced his decision to move to her home state. Indeed, Will passed on his knowledge and passion for farming to his children, and his eldest daughter currently serves as a Chief of Operations in the Chicago area.
Revolutionizing Good Food
As a graduate of Marketing, Will worked with Procter & Gamble for several years and became a very successful employee. As time passed, Will again renewed his interest in the agricultural industry after more and more experts began identifying the connection between an individual’s eating habits and his/her health. Realizing the importance of a farmer’s work, Will’s was reignited and he decided it was what he wanted to do all his life.
And so, in 1993, Will left Procter & Gamble to focus on what is was truly passionate about: farming. In that same year, Will began his operations after purchasing “Growing Power,” a plant nursery that was in foreclosure, as well as a one-hundred-acre farm that was previously owned by Cynthia’s parents. Through his knowledge and expertise, Will redeveloped the lands in order to farm both plants and small animals.
Living in the city, Will knew that what he learned from his father about farming was quite different, and he decided to adapt to the degree of difference between rural and city environments. While overseeing the success of his developments, Will realized that urban farming is a great alternative in promoting the local food industry, and began to share his knowledge with others.
As he still does today, Will promotes the benefits of urban farming and often cites the success of “Growing Power” as proof. In the United States, there is still much emphasis on getting people to return to rural areas and start farming, but that is where Will sees a solvable problem. Because people in the city do not want to return to rural areas, why not bring farming to them? As land becomes more industrialized, the farming industry must adapt to the changes for those who are able to farm in much less space:
“We need to put more funding into sustainable agriculture. There’s not much farming money. We need to grow farmers and train farmers. They won’t come from rural communities; they’ll come from colleges and programs. We have to train them more intensively on less space, because we have less healthy farmland. More population, less space. I’ve started growing on a five-story vertical farm.”
Not long after its inception, “Growing Power” became a success, primarily because of its less-costly and more practical approach to farming. Will’s popularity also increased substantially, and he began receiving invitations to speak in various places in and out of Wisconsin about his revolutionary method of farming. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Will travelled to many different states to speak in conferences and other engagements about the success of urban farming and the importance of individual involvement in producing local food.
In 2005, Will received a leadership grant from the Ford Foundation for his development and promotion of the concept of urban farming. Three years later, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Will the “Genius Grant” in honor of his work. One year later, Will received a grant from the Kellogg Foundation to help create jobs in the urban agriculture industry.
One of primary things on which Will and his team at “Growing Power” have focused is getting the next generation interested in the concept of urban farming. As he stated in an interview:
“We can engage young people, really engage them right now. Start at home, in the classrooms. Make these lessons very concrete; that’s how kids learn. Don’t just talk to them; if they participate in, say, a garden in a school or greencatch system, simple things like collecting food scraps to make compost, to collect leaves and newspaper and cardboard—there’s so many things young people can learn. Once they get it an early age, they’ll continue to do that throughout their lives.”
Since “Growing Power” started in the 1990s, it has become one of the most successful urban farming centers in the United States. This is amazing, especially because good soil is hard to find in the city, which makes it tricky to grow good crops. But, with innovation and passion, “Growing Power” now has about two-hundred acres of land developed for urban farming in Milwaukee alone.
Will discussed the issue in an interview:
“Growing food is all about the soil—especially when you’re doing organic farming. You have to grow soil. We’re in the city where all the soil is contaminated, so we grow compost and put two feet of soil on top of packed soil or concrete to grow food. And we now have food growing on about 200 acres in the city.”
Recently, Will collaborated with First Lady Michelle Obama to establish a garden in the White House for urban farming. Recalling the experience, Will said:
“To team up with the First Lady, starting that 1,200-square-foot garden at the White House. Her consistency and the passion she shows for that. The First Family is a healthy family who eats healthy food—that’s helped a lot. Having that kind of support has helped move this along into a revolution. Ten million people are growing food for the first time.”
Today, Will remains a leader of the urban farming industry. Through his hard work and dedication to popularizing the practice, more and more people are beginning to live healthier lives and help keep their cities clean. Will knows there is still a lot to be done, but he will not stop as long as positive change continues.
“What keeps me doing this work is to see positive changes happening. Seeing the change in a community reenergizes me. To see a young person becoming passionate about changing eating habits energizes me. Seeing more local food in public schools, to start something and sustain it.”
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Growing Power
- Let’s Move!
Awards and Achievements
- 2005: Received a Ford Foundation Grant
- 2008: Conferred Fellowship by the MacArthur Foundation
- 2009: Received a Kellogg Foundation Grant
- 2013: Received the “NAACP Image Award” in the Biography/Autobiography Category (The Good Food Revolution)
- 2012: Honorary Doctor of Agriculture from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee