There are many reasons we’re thrilled to welcome Will Allen as the opening speaker at our Building a Land Ethic Conference this June. Widely recognized as a leading voice on urban agriculture in America and throughout the world, Will Allen is perhaps best known as the founder and CEO of the Milwaukee-based organization Growing Power. He’s been recognized by Time Magazine as one of our nation’s most influential people, and in 2008, Will was awarded the John D. and Katherine T. McArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” and named a McArthur Fellow – only the second farmer to receive the honor. One year after that milestone, Curt Meine had a chance to chat with Will and learn about his work to reconnect healthy food, soil and communities in the process of filming Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time. We’re sharing that interview widely here to give a preview of some of the key connections and issues we’ll be exploring in June, and to share Will’s incredible insights on the good food revolution.
Curt: How did you get interested in sustainable agriculture?
Will: I grew up on a farm in Maryland, so growing food was my life. Ninety-five percent of our food we raised was always organic. We didn’t call it organic, but it was all beyond organic. It was a practical thing. We didn’t have money to buy food, so we grew our own. And then I got away from it. When I left the farm at 18, like many farm kids, I said, “Never again will I do this work.” And here I am, saying, “You should never say never!” That’s one of the lessons I learned that I pass along to all the kids I work with. I played professional basketball after college and during my last years I wound up in Belgium and found myself hanging out with some Belgian farmers. Because I had some time on my hands, I’d go out into the countryside, and all of a sudden I had this urge to get my hands in the dirt. I must have had this hidden passion that I didn’t know I had. And all of a sudden I wanted to grow food again. Something had been missing in my life, and that was it.
Curt: The interest in urban agriculture seems to keep growing. Is that what you’re sensing too?
Will: Yeah, I’m sensing it, and I’m fortunate to be able to see it grow. We get hundreds of emails inviting us to come and work on and advise projects in so many cities. And about 10,000 people each year come to visit us at Growing Power. We have over a thousand kids a month visit the facility in Milwaukee.
Curt: Tell me a little bit about the methods you use to grow food in the middle of the city.
Will: We’re taking about 3,000 square feet and turning it into 5,000 square feet of growing space by using vertical production methods. In a space no larger than a small supermarket, we have something like 20,000 plants and vegetables, thousands of fish, and a livestock inventory of chickens, goats, and bees. We’re trying to use every bit of space we have.
Curt: Leopold had a passion for soil and he understood problems of soil health and soil erosion. Tell me about the role of soil here at your urban farm.
Will: Engaging the community has been our first step here, and the second has been rebuilding the soil. Soil is everything. Healthy soil is what makes healthy food. Right now our food is 50% less nutrient-rich than it was in 1950. The use of so many chemicals in farming has killed all the microorganisms in the soil, the things that tickle the root fibers to make things grow. So, what we’ve done at Growing Power is to grow new soil from the waste that’s created inside the city. This year we will collect about 10 million pounds of food waste from the city and compost it with the help of worms to rebuild healthy soil we can use to grow healthy food.
Curt: Can you talk the role of community in the evolution of Growing Power?
Will: We’re not just growing food, we’re really growing a community, too, as we grow our food – because food is the most powerful thing in our lives. Every day we wake up, the first thing we think about: what are we going to eat today? What are we going to pack for lunch? What are we going to have for dinner? It’s always on our mind. It’s what keeps us alive. But it’s the last thing on most people’s agenda when we start talking about community development. It’s like—let’s fix the streets. Let’s fix the crime. Let’s fix all these other things, but I think we need to start with the food. If we have a solid food system, then other things become much easier. You can’t have a sustainable community when you have pockets of people that don’t have good access to food and no hope. They’re obese. They’re having health issues. They have diabetes. When kids are well-fed, they go to school, they learn. When they’re hungry, all they do is disrupt.
Curt: In his land ethic, Leopold wrote about the fact that no matter where you are in the landscape, you have a connection to the earth. Do you think about that connection that you’ve made consciously or is it just part of who you are?
Will: I think a little bit of both. It was kind of who I am, the way that I was raised, you know? I understood at a very early age how you treat the earth with respect and you don’t really own the earth. My grandfather was Native Cherokee, and that influenced me too. I think we’re all connected to the earth, but a lot of people don’t want to admit it. But in fact, touching the soil can be the most powerful thing, the most spiritual thing one can do. I see it happen when kids come in here after school. As soon as they touch the soil, they mellow out. It’s an unbelievable thing that happens. Every time, it happens. And when they see the worms, and they hold worms, same thing happens. It just puts them in a different place. It’s a very therapeutic thing, a very spiritual thing when you touch the soil.
Curt: Leopold said, “There are two things that interest me—the relation of people to each other, and the relation of people to land.” And that’s what you’re doing here. You’re not only connecting people to the land, you’re connecting people to each other too.
Will: Right. I think, one of my strengths is developing relationships and all those relationships matter. We have to have everybody at the table. We can’t kick people away. We can’t say, well, we don’t like your politics, you’re away from the table. Because that person you kick away could be a key person in terms of how we really fix these problems that we have around the environment. So we’ve got to have everybody at the table. Everybody’s important. Everybody’s to be respected. That’s really important to me. That’s what I try to do, to develop relationships with people who care so much about the entire planet. Not just their little rural town or their big city. We have to care about the whole planet because if something is bad happening anywhere, it’s going to affect us whether we realize it or not.
Curt: What brings you hope as you watch this movement grow?
Will: I’m finding that more people of color and young people are joining the revolution. So we try to pass on to our youth corps, through our talks, through our thousands of youth that come through here and inspire them to really do the sustainable things that we should have been doing all along. We have to keep growing more people to do this work. We’re one of the only multicultural, multigenerational organizations doing this kind of work in the country. So, that makes me very proud and hopeful.
Will Allen will be offering the opening keynote address at the Building a Land Ethic Conference on Thursday, June 22. Online registration is open through June 8, 2017.