The Great Will Allen on urban agriculture at the Grey to Green Festival in Youngstown

Submitted by Sudhir Kade on Mon, 10/05/2009 - 09:54.


It's no great secret that local foods and local economy represent one of the great opportunities for our city and region.  Exciting work is developing at a rapid pace in this domain, not just in Cleveland but throughout our entire region.   A great example of educating, advocating, and advancing collaborative ways of driving grassroots economic development was made transparent to hundreds who gathered at last month's Grey to Green festival in Youngstown.  I was honored to participate and meet a living legend, MacArthur award recipient and urban foods pioneer Will Allen, there.  For decades Will has worked to lead Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wisconsin as a champion of social entrepreneurship and social justice.

The Growing Power model does many things which showcase the best practices which help social entrepreneurship thrive.  Will insists on paying all of his employees and interns a fair wage and giving them all a real opportunity to grow and thrive as Growing Power does.  He realizes and also made clear in Youngstown that quality people are the greatest asset of any organization. His models incorporate multiple streams of revenue.  High quality, ultra-rich macrobiotic compost is paramount to his process and model - in Youngstown he repeated a core mantra many times: 'Grow the Soil'.  It speaks to having the richest foundation possible for everything else.  This is accomplished in a community-aware, collaborative way by collecting food waste from a multitude of local sources and using it in tandem with the Growing Power outfit's main livestock - worms (that vermi-compost)  to create the richest possible soil.  The compost itself is then sold at a premium due to its superior value.  The livestock (worms) are another stream of revenue in their own right - and the castings (worm poo) represent still another revenue stream as well as one of the richest organic fertilizers and plant foods one can buy.  Enabling year round growth through giant hoop-house greenhouses is another key to Growing Power's success.   The space within these houses is optimized by creating living machines that incorporate cutting edge aquaponics to ensure that high quality, toxin-free seafood is produced on site.   The compost 'grown' helps heat these greenhouses very energy efficiently - and a massive biodigester helps create the needed slurry to drive and power a very large facility cleanly.   

Will's greatest achievements, however, are not simply measured by the profitability and eco-awareness of his social enterprise.  It is his daily commitment to serving others and being inclusive of others that really set him apart from the crowd.  He has traveled the world to share slides and tell stories of the multitude of community gardens he has birthed in under-served communities, with the help of local youth and other community stakeholders.  He insists that Community Supported Agriculture programs are supported and enriched in the process.  And he greatly values education as a cornerstone of all he does - thousands upon thousands flock to Growing Power's facility for educational workshops that enlighten and train inter-generationally and experientially.  Armies of smart, socially conscious urban foods pioneers and aquaculture-savvy technologists are emerging over time as a result.

The proceedings kicked off with great comments from Congressman Tim Ryan and several other dignitaries.  Their message of Youngstown's remarkable revitalization of late, which includes one of the region's most innovative incubators, was inspiring.  But the great Will Allen was the highlight of the day, and justly so.  Later in the day a nice food panel, which included my colleague Brad Masi of the New Agrarian Center and Mr. Allen, provided a great cap to the day's events.  I was then thrilled to be invited by event organizers and participants to sup with Will Allen, Casey Hoy, and several other great minds and souls that night in a beautiful Youngstown home and converse and learn more from so many of them.

I will never forget the experience.

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A Great American GIANT

 This photo just makes me smile, Sudhir*

When I was growing up, American tall tales were de rigeur reading for kids.  In the tradition of Johnny Appleseed and Davy Crockett, real people immortalized in tall tales--I hope that Will Allen's message will reach America.

Thanks for this great photo--we need to start collaboration on the children's book :)

*(I know that you are taller than I am, so Will Allen is a giant :)