Will Allen, the now-legendary urban farmer from Milwaukee whose organization Growing Power is at the forefront of the “good food revolution,” is at once an intimidating figure and a gentle presence. His imposing physicality (not only is he 6-foot-7 but his overall size seems to suggest that the rest of us belong to some sort of Lilliputian species) hides a down-to-earth wisdom and tenderness that he incessantly employs in the search for simple solutions to provide access to people from all backgrounds to fresh and affordable food.
Last weekend, Allen came to New York, where he launched a new Regional Outreach Training Center at the Bed Stuy Farm and led a hands-on workshop on urban farming. Over the course of two days, under scorching 100-degree heat, a dozen participants built a hoop house, a fully functioning aquaponics installation and a vermicompost system in a small Brooklyn lot. Allen’s Growing Power team (aquaponics expert, Rick Muller; evaluation coordinator, Martin Bailkey; and driver, Brenda Humes) had driven 1,000 miles across the country with a truck full of construction materials, tools, worms, soil and piles of technical drawings that participants would later take to their communities and use to develop other local food projects.
In his customary blue sleeveless hoodie and baseball cap, Allen slipped inside, away from the unbearable heat and sat down with me for a conversation about his life, his approach to community farming and his future projects. The air conditioning unit that kept us cool while we talked took a slight toll on the audio quality, but it’s well worth the listen. Find below a snippet of our conversation. You can listen to the entire 40 minute interview by clicking on the audio player above and you can read the interview in its entirety in the PDF transcript (download underneath podcast).
You also often talk about the spiritual dimension of farming, of how humbling it is to farm and that connection for people.
I think farming is a very spiritual thing. Touching the soil can actually make you feel better. I've seen it happen with kids, they come in wired, as soon as they touch the soil they kind of calm down. So that tells me a lot in terms of the spirituality about farming, that we're all people of the earth, whether we want to admit it or not. Because you hear kids, “I don’t want to touch those worms” or “I don’t want to touch the soil. It’s dirt! And I don’t want to touch that dirty stuff.” But we're all people of the earth. And the closer we get to it, the more calming and therapeutic it is. And that’s why it’s very therapeutic for people with problems, to be able to get involved in growing food, touching the soil, it’s a very powerful thing that can happen to us as human beings.
You also often talk about the “no fence principle.” You don’t put fences in your gardens, it’s about the connection with the community, and I think this is also connected with your projects being very multicultural in involving all sorts of people.
Yes. I think it’s important for us to understand that growing healthy food is something that should be shared, that we do have responsibility for people that are less fortunate. And I think that these farms that we develop shouldn’t have fences. Because if you grow food as part of a community garden, well let’s really make sure it is a community garden, that it’s not owned by anybody but the community, so to speak. So it’s okay if somebody goes in the garden and takes a few tomatoes. If they are that hungry, that’s what they should do. So I know a lot of people get upset, “Somebody came in there taking half of our tomatoes.” What I tell them is to grow enough, grow extra in the garden and you can do that. So I think fences tell you that, “I don’t want you in here. I want to keep you out and you can only come in here when I open the gate and let you in. And then I'm going to watch you as you walk through my place.” So I think it’s not a healthy thing to do in the context of what we're trying to do with community gardens. So that’s pretty much how I feel about it, and it’s like being in a rural community and you plant sweet corn. Well the raccoons are going to eat half of it, so…
This is the story of 18 years now with many incredible accomplishments. I wanted to challenge you to tell me one particular case, one moment, one person, something very specific that happened where you felt that this was the right thing to do, that it was really rewarding, what you were doing.
Yeah. I actually remember this. This happened about 12 years ago maybe. I used to do all the tours back in the day, before I had all these 71 employees I used to do everything. And I was taking a group of sixth graders on a tour, and basically when you take six-year olds their attentions span is very short. And having done this many, many times, I just wanted them to learn a couple of things. I wanted them to learn about what worms do. Which is they take food waste, compost, that’s the way we do it, and they eat that material and they produce microorganisms at a rate of 13 times the original number. So when a worm takes in, say microorganisms at a 250,000 count, as the food waste goes through their body, some wonderful stuff happens. One of the things that happens is the bacteria just multiplies 13 times whatever 250 million is, is what happens. Also, as it passes through their gut if there’s E. coli in there that gets crushed, so they eliminate E. coli in the soils. So when their excrement comes out, it’s power-packed by only beneficial microorganisms. So what I wanted this group of kids to do is to understand that there are microorganisms in the soil, and the worms help grow microorganisms. That was it.
One goal, one goal. It was all about the microorganisms tickling the root fibers of the plants to make them grow. So I did that and at the end, during the course, I kept having them chant, “Worms produce microorganisms, microorganisms make plants grow. And microorganisms are little bugs that you can’t see. That’s why they call them microorganisms.” I had them chanting that. At the end we always give those groups an apple or a pear or something on their way out. And they were great. And as they were leaving there was one young lady who was six years old, and she kept asking me really challenging questions. I mean, here is a six-year old asking me questions—“Mr. Allen, why is this, why is that,” and so forth. So as they were leaving, I shake all their hands and give them an apple on their way out to catch their bus. And this young lady leaves and she turns around and she walks back toward me and she just walked up to me and she didn’t say anything. And I had my hands down by my side, and she grabs my hand and she opens up my hand and she sticks a candy right in the center of my hand, and she closes my hand and walks away. So that was a moment I'll never forget because my interpretation is that she really appreciated the opportunity to come, for her and her classmates to learn something, and here’s like a little gift for you. That’s the way I interpreted it. Those are the kinds of things that energize you and make you stop and think. This work is really hard, some days I really don’t want to give tours, but I do them with a smile and vigor just like I do every other time if I'm not feeling so good and I could be doing something else on my farm or whatever. But at that moment in time, those kind of things mean more than if somebody would have walked up to me and gave me $10,000. Just that little edge, because that is what gives me the energy and that’s why I do this work.