Will Allen, founder of Milwaukee's Growing Power -- a productive urban farm -- is launching a Twin Cities training center with Women's Environmental Institute. Its first project, the Little Earth of United Tribes Urban Farms, brought Allen to town.
Allen, 59, cuts an imposing figure as a 6-foot-7 former pro-basketball player. He is featured in several recent food documentaries, and was the recipient of the MacArthur Foundation's "Genius Award."
Q Growing Power's Milwaukee headquarters is just 2 acres and has six greenhouses, eight hoophouses (for herbs, vegetables and greens), pens for goats, ducks, chickens and turkeys; beehives, and a system for raising tilapia and perch. How much more can you do on that small lot?
A I'd like to see Growing Power transform itself into a five-story vertical building being totally off the grid with renewable energy, where people can come and learn, so they can go back to their communities around the world and grow healthy food.
Q You are only the second working farmer to win the MacArthur Genius Award. What about your practices caught MacArthur's attention?
A Growing Power isn't just about raising good food -- microgreens and herbs and edible flowers and heirloom tomatoes -- though that's important. Growing Power is a way to organize people and activate communities. I am a farmer first, and I love to grow food for people. But it's also about growing power. We also have a 40-acre farm outside the city, gardens throughout the neighborhoods and, in Chicago, a garden at the Cabrini Green housing project and farms in Grant and Jackson parks.
Q Why did you choose this site in Minneapolis?
A I am part Cherokee, so the Little Earth Project interested me and Minneapolis is an especially hospitable place. We will focus on foods that are especially meaningful to the Native community, food that hasn't been grown here for a long time -- squash, corn, beans -- and it will be affordable.
Q What is Growing Power's strategy?
A We spend way too much time talking about the problems with our food system. I'm a farmer. I spend about 8 minutes a day in the office; the rest of the time I'm out on the land. How many top-down operations can get a project going? We need about 15 million people to grow foods, in back yards and community gardens and on these small farms, to see any kind of change.
Q Why is the composting with worms [vermiculture] so important?
A You can't grow good food without good soil. City soil is contaminated or it has been depleted. We don't have the time or the money to dig everything up and fix it. By creating new soil using worms [such as Red Wigglers] that can break the components down quickly, we can build up nutrient-rich beds for nutritious vegetables. The worm castings make great fertilizer. It can also be bagged and sold.
Co-ops, warehouses, restaurants all throw away crates of produce each day. In Milwaukee, we go through 24 million tons of rotten produce a week, turning it into soil and keeping it out of the landfill.
Q Can your composting system be used at home?
A Absolutely, the principles are the same. People will be able to buy worms from the Training Center for their homes relatively soon. They multiply quickly. There are worms in every pot of our soil, in the compost, and in the beds throughout our greenhouses.
Q In the film "Fresh," you fry a whole fish. It looks delicious.
A I learned how to cook tilapia that way on a visit to Africa [Kenya], giving Growing Power Workshops. There is something about cooking the fish whole that keeps it moist and flavorful. That's how we cook the fish we grow in our pools [see recipe].
Q Where did you learn to farm and cook?
A My dad was a sharecropper; I've learned everything from my parents. I started Growing Power in 1993 and am realizing that we are going back to a time when people took care of each other. That's the only way we will survive. What better way than to pass on what's been given to us, with food.
For information about Growing Power Training and Composting, contact the Women's Environmental Institute, 651-209-3934, email@example.com or visit its web site, www.w-e-i-org.
Beth Dooley is a Minneapolis writer.