Former basketball player Will Allen “palms” a freshly-harvested head of red cabbage — one of the vegetables sweetgreen River North sources from Growing Power.

Meet the Godfather of Urban Farming, Who’s Breeding the Next Generation of People to Feed the World

Will Allen is a legendary urban farmer, the CEO of Growing Power and an all-around badass.

“I started doing this because I wanted to prove that you could cash flow an urban or small-scale farm,” says Will Allen. “It just kept snowballing, and we kept building infrastructure, and there were a lot of naysayers.”

There’s no better way to silence naysayers than to build the largest urban farm in the world, which is precisely what Will Allen has done with Growing Power. His non-profit network of urban farms produces more than 1 million pounds of food a year on just 300 acres, thanks to innovative growing techniques and a firm commitment to his mission.

That success, and Allen’s involvement in 70 urban farming initiatives throughout the world have made him quite the celebrity in the food world — he’s the godfather of urban ag. In 2008, he received a Genius Grant from the MacArthur Foundation, and in 2010, he was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People.

“I never did this for an award, but winning them helps put farming more on the radar,” says Allen. And that’s what it’s all about.

“It’s an art form to be able to do this — this is the way we did it back in the day before they made the machines,” says Allen of ‘broadcasting’ seeds. “Most people are spending money to plant two-by-two rows, but you get more production if you do it this way. Then we put worm castings, and then water it, and it pops up in about a day.”

Growing Power is ground zero for the next generation of agriculture. It’s the vehicle through which Will Allen is living his purpose to “bring good food to everybody, and to educate people about food, from field to fork.”

To that end, Growing Power’s impact extends far beyond just Chicago and Milwaukee. Will Allen’s team teaches sustainable food systems to a breadth of people from all around the world, including aspiring farmers, curious architects and city planners.

“A lot of people have never farmed before, but they like the idea and want to farm,” says Allen. But the act of farming is relentless, exhausting, and not for the faint of heart — you have to grow passion to stay in the field. “I’d say about 50% of people who start farming drop out because they don’t have that real passion — they have a bad year, or they run up against trying times, and they just don’t stick with it.”

Those odds don’t bode well for the future of food. Which is why it’s so important to get people passionate about local food and the work of growers like Will Allen.

Hoophouses are the future of farming — because of climate change and weather and floods, you can build them anywhere on higher ground and be an effective grower, yearound, so long as you’re maintaining the soil.

It’s important to realize that Growing Power isn’t just about food. Yes, it’s proving you can grow mass volumes of food within city limits. But it’s also creating jobs in communities where unemployment rates sometimes hit 90%, and creating more access for real food in “food deserts.” And that’s huge, because studies have shown a 20-year difference in life expectancy between upscale communities and inner cities, largely credited to food access. Sustainable urban food systems can help solve both problems, and the long term goal is to end poverty through the power of food.

“You have all these areas where 16-, 18-, 40- and 50-year-olds haven’t had jobs for years,” he says. The only way to break that cycle is to teach valuable job skills, so Allen is showing these populations that farming is a vehicle to a better and healthier life, and taking them along a “continuum” as they develop a deep passion for farming and food.

He’s hoping Growing Power will spark passion and drive people to pursue one of the 100 career paths in sustainable farming and food, especially in cities. After all, we’re going to have to feed a rapidly growing population in the coming decades, so it’s an industry where the opportunity is only going to get bigger.

Compost enriched with worm castings.

The productivity at Growing Power’s urban farms is unexpected — any grower will tell you that farming is all about soil health, and the soil sitting 25 feet above city sewage pipes doesn’t really give you much to work with. But that’s never stopped Will Allen.

“I’m a real competitive person — if somebody tells me I can’t do something, it just fires me up,” he says.

To scale Growing Power, he’s leveraged innovative tactics to optimize productivity on limited tracts of land. Remember, this is urban farming, where you don’t have the luxury of space. The goal is productivity, so our minds were blown when Allen told us some of his kale has been harvested 20 times, and it just keeps coming back. (At other farms, we’ve seen kale kick the dust after 3–5 rounds, so whatever Allen is doing is working.)

“It’s all about how much you can fill in a square foot — I look at agriculture from the acreage.”

To drive efficiency, he’s gotten scrappy. Allen “broadcasts” seeds to distribute them with optimal density, a skill he learned from his sharecropper dad. And he’s built beds between made-from-scratch hoophouses to get even more out of the land. And those harsh Midwestern winters? Not a problem — he stacks his greenhouses with “hot mix” compost that heats up to 150 degrees, warming the hoophouse enough to grow 365 days a year.

“It’s all about the soil. We grow soil. I’ve done that since I was almost born,” says Will, raking a pile of compost on the main site of Growing Power in Milwaukee.

This compost is not your typical compost. Supermarkets pay Growing Power to pick up their waste (another revenue stream for the non-profit), and then red wriggler worms go to work, in a process called vermicomposting. The worms blow through compost, and the castings (a.k.a. worm poop) multiply the soil’s microorganisms by 13x. The result is supercharged organic matter that’s a fertile home for growth. Which means Growing Power can keep up the intensive cycle of compost, plant, harvest, compost, plant, harvest … and keep the soil healthy and vital throughout.

“It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of physical labor,” but it works — a study in Europe found that worm castings increased yield on a vineyard by 50%. Plus, the vermicompost kills weeds, circumventing the need for pesticides. So while Growing Power may not be certified organic, in practice, they’re “beyond organic.”

And if you thought Growing Power was limited to produce, you’d be wrong — they’re also growing lake perch and plants like watercress and wheatgrass in aquaponic systems. In these handbuilt, $4,000 closed systems, pumps and gravity work together to circulate and filter water and nitrogen from the perch tank to the plants and back again, in a virtuous cycle. It’s a classic win-win, and the symbiosis is one of the key ways Allen hopes to feed urban populations in the coming years, thanks to its low cost and small footprint.

“I train people how to do this all over the country,” he says, of his techniques. “This is the future of gardening.”

Wheatgrass grows in one of the aquaponic systems.

To think this all started with just one chunk of land in 1993 is inspiring, to say the least. Today, Will Allen is the world’s preeminent urban farmer, running 20 farm sites in Milwaukee and Chicago, while also innovating his techniques, applying for grants, jetsetting for speaking gigs, and marketing Growing Power to new customers. It’s a rigorous routine that requires a 4 a.m. wakeup every day, but if anyone’s going to make Growing Power — and sustainable urban agriculture — succeed in the long-term, it’s him.

Because the more Growing Power accomplishes, the more people will see the potential of urban agriculture and buy into it as a viable way to feed the world, and to end poverty.

“I have to keep pushing forward,” says Allen. “I know I have to do something real that people can see.”

And this right here? This is real.