After years of tilling away in obscurity, Will Allen has found sudden fame as the face of the urban farming movement.
In the year since he won a "genius grant" from a Chicago foundation, Allen has mingled with former President Bill Clinton, appeared in Oprah Winfrey's O magazine and spoken to scores of groups across the nation and overseas.
"The thing that makes me happiest is that more people of color are joining the good-food revolution," Allen said. "Ten years ago, an African-American would say, this is slaves' work, why you doing this? Now we have more people of color at my talks. Before this I had never been interviewed by black media, and now I've had stories in seven or eight black magazines."
A former pro basketball player, Allen is the founder and chief executive of Growing Power Inc., a Milwaukee-based company that develops urban farming techniques and teaches young people how to grow food in poor, inner-city neighborhoods.
‘This guy's my hero’
His goal is to teach people how to grow nutritious foods anywhere, in any climate, and the publicity generated by the MacArthur Foundation grant may help him do that. Allen's work caught Clinton's eye, and he was invited to the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City last month. There, the former president introduced Allen by saying: "This guy's my hero."
"He said Hillary (Rodham Clinton) and he had been following my career," Allen said. "It was surprising."
Clinton's global action group also committed to helping Growing Power raise $1.9 million to help Allen to teach his farming methods to women and children in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Allen said he's focusing on women because they're the primary farmers, and children because they suffer most from the lack of food.
"It's about building sustainable food systems," Allen said of his mission, "creating a whole industry around local food systems that can improve communities. That can help end crime and create thousands of jobs. It's about working to make sure everyone has access to good food, to healthy food, high-quality, safe food."
The soft-spoken 60-year-old grew up in a farming family, which gave him the background to start Growing Power. Believing it would be impossible to grow healthy food in polluted soil, Allen developed a way to make compost — tons of it — from waste food and other organic material. His techniques improved on earlier methods that yield only several pounds of compost at a time, he said.
From there, Allen began growing vegetables in thousands of pots, making efficient use of limited greenhouse space. In cities such as Milwaukee and Chicago, where he has farms, vacant lots and flat garage rooftops can be ideal locations for gardens that produce fresh vegetables year-round, he said. He also created a self-sustaining system of fish farming, in which lake perch and tilapia are raised in water that also circulates to feed growing plants.
Persistence and hard work
Allen credits persistence, hard work and a lot of trial and error for his farming success. He feels uncomfortable when called a genius, but his son said the title fits.
"Absolutely, he's a very intelligent man," said Jason Allen, a partner at a Milwaukee law firm.
The MacArthur Foundation grant provides $100,000 per year for five years, which winners can use however they want. Allen, whose interns and volunteers often include inner-city youths, set aside most of his award for grants to poor college students who have no cash left over after paying for tuition and books. Many of those students feel isolated when they can't afford to join friends at movies or other college activities and are at risk of dropping out, he said.
Allen said playing hoops for the University of Miami and the American Basketball Association helped prepare him for the scrutiny that comes with speaking to thousands of people. But both he and his son said he'd be just as happy out of the spotlight.
"I think he likes meeting people and teaching farming techniques, but if he had his druthers he wouldn't travel," Jason Allen said. "He'd just work on the farm."
Allen said he's trying to get back to focusing on his farm after several months in which he was so busy he even declined an invitation from the White House chef to visit first lady Michelle Obama's new herb and vegetable garden.
"I just haven't had time," Allen said. "Maybe next spring or summer."