Behind the Rise and Fall of Growing Power

The urban farming powerhouse had a global reputation. Then, it collapsed last year under mounting debt, prompting big questions about what happened and what comes next.



Will Allen is a beloved figure. The former professional basketball player and founder of the Milwaukee-based nonprofit Growing Power has had an influence on urban agriculture that is as conspicuous as his 6’7 inch frame and the characteristic sleeveless hooded sweatshirts that reveal his lumberjack biceps.

In 1993, Allen bought the city’s last remaining farm at 5500 Silver Springs on Milwaukee’s north side, four miles from the nearest grocery store and five blocks from the nearest public housing projects. What grew from that 19th century greenhouse could not be measured in pounds, bushels, or even dollars. What arose was a nonprofit organization that expanded people’s ideas about what was possible in local food production and youth education.

Then, last November, facing insurmountable debt and legal pressure (the nonprofit has eight pending judgments totaling nearly half a million dollars) the board of directors decided to dissolve Growing Power. Many questions remain about what caused the organization’s downfall, but as Allen told Civil Eats recently, he has no intention of retiring.

“The shutdown was unfortunate and something I had no control over,” said Allen, who is still working on the farm. “We’re trying to get this place back to its original glory days. What’s been reported is absolutely not true. I can’t tell the story because it’s too involved, but I can tell you that we’re on our way back.”

As the story unfolds—and accounts differ—the downfall of Growing Power raises larger questions about the risks of scaling up urban agriculture in today’s complex philanthropic world.

The Early Days

From the beginning, Allen, a son of sharecroppers who grew up on a farm in Maryland, had two distinct priorities for his farm: composting and youth mentorship—the latter informed by the former. In drafty old greenhouses, Allen taught low-income children how to grow compost in rows of wooden boxes. Worms fed on decomposing vegetables, circuitously depositing dense nutrients into the soil and creating healthy compost, which was then sold by the organization. The compost was an essential part of the work.

Where most people see vacant lots, Allen saw vegetables. Growing Power built over 100 hoop houses, each one spread with more than 100 yards of compost over asphalt and concrete. “You have to assume every vacant lot has contaminants in the soil,” he said. “So that why I started this practice of composting at scale.”

Growing Power soon incorporated aquaponics, another closed-loop system that produced farmed fish and simultaneously fertilized the plants with their waste. In just six months, 50 tilapia emerged from this rudimentary but brilliant system.

Growing Power's Milwaukee farm. (Photo credit: Will Allen)

Growing Power’s Milwaukee farm. (Photo credit: Will Allen)

A defining characteristic of Allen’s work was the way in which his social programs emulated the holistic feedback loops of his farm. Decorative plants were used for landscaping, then sold to schools and community centers, funding the continuation of the program. Students learned how to read, write, and can vegetables. Growing Power worked with the local juvenile justice system, training and rehabilitating children by planting flowers in vacant lots where—by Allen’s own estimation—they might’ve otherwise been used for selling drugs.

The 1990s in urban Milwaukee was unkind to its young Black men. In this period there were four times as many African Americans incarcerated annually for drug-related offenses as white men. (This persisted over the subsequent decade, with disparities rising to 11- to 12-fold between 2002 and 2005.) On a vacant lot at 24th and Brown, a planting flurry would yield what Will calls “a flower explosion.” It was a way of running drug dealers off the corner, as it invited attention and activity. And in just two years, Growing Power itself was beginning to attract attention, on the front page of the Milwaukee paper, and from other civic leaders in high-crime neighborhoods around the country.

By the early 2000s, the local food movement was no longer localized. Farmers’ markets were popping up nationwide, and along with them a legion of so-called “good food” advocates. Growing Power was still centralized in Milwaukee, but its impact had grown nationwide. The two-acre flagship greenhouse was now a training facility with visitors coming from around the world to learn from the organization. It was a good food hub, creating access to healthy food in an area that desperately needed it.

By 2009, Growing Power was selling food online, at farmers’ markets, schools, restaurants, and via below-market-cost CSA boxes, reaching more than 10,000 people. In addition to growing and distributing food, Growing Power-led trainings grew exponentially. Visitors from the city of Milwaukee, the Midwest, and countless cities worldwide adapted Allen’s knowledge of growing, composting, and aquaponics for their communities.

Notoriety and Success

Growing Power’s expansion can be attributed, in part, to the MacArthur Genius Award Allen received in 2008, and the half-million-dollar prize that came with it. It also garnered high-level attention from the media, the food world, and former President Clinton.

Will Allen demonstrates his aquaculture system for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (left) in 2015. (Photo credit: USDA)

Will Allen demonstrates his aquaculture system for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (left) in 2015. (Photo credit: USDA)

Allen became a star, and his organization grew radically, from a staff of a dozen or so to 200 people. A widespread recruitment and mobilization of urban agriculture and environmental justice workers ensued. A decade later, many of those workers now lead their own urban farming enterprises.

People like Nick DeMarsh—a Growing Power employee from 2008-2010 and currently a program manager at Groundwork Milwaukee—attributes the health of Milwaukee’s urban farming community to Allen’s inspiration, saying, “We’ve seen Will as a model, and people have said, ‘How can I do that in my own neighborhood?’”

Educational programs spread throughout the region. There were leadership programs, job trainings for underserved youth, internships, and hands-on workshops. The funds also supported a Chicago chapter of Growing Power, led by Erika Allen, Will’s daughter.

There were more greenhouses and hoop houses, more kitchens and training gardens, fish, chickens, turkeys, goats, and bees. Most of what was raised on the farm was also packed, distributed, and promoted by the organization. By all accounts, Growing Power was doing exactly what they had set out to do. They were feeding, training, and exposing thousands of people to a more autonomous relationship with their food. The mission was being fulfilled, but with significant costs.

Perhaps the income and activity obscured the high operating costs, but there was income. In 2012, Growing Power was again awarded a substantial grant, this time from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, one of the largest philanthropic foundations in the United States. Kellogg had an explicit aim to support racial equity and community engagement, and Growing Power checked a lot of boxes for them.

As the funding amplified, so did scrutiny about its origins. In fact, one of the very people that helped facilitate the crucial MacArthur grant would later become openly critical of Growing Power’s choice of funders.

Andy Fisher, the co-founder of the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC)—a food justice organization on whose board of directors Allen served for six years—had seen Allen as “an inspiring and charismatic leader.” But when Growing Power accepted a $1 million grant from the Walmart Foundation in 2011, Fisher was outspoken about his displeasure with this corporate philanthropy. Some, like Fisher, saw no distinction between the Foundation and the company, and worried that Walmart was brazenly trying to buy its way into the good food movement.

As Fisher saw it at the time, the Walmart Foundation’s giving was 100 percent linked to the strategic interests of Walmart the company. He saw the funds as an endorsement (or absolution) of the corporation’s practice of exploiting and underpaying food-chain workers, farmers, and suppliers. “I thought it was naive and problematic that he was taking the money and giving them a pass on their payment practices,” Fisher told Civil Eats recently.

Some of Growing Power's hoop houses in Milwaukee. (Photo credit: Will Allen)

Some of Growing Power’s hoop houses in Milwaukee. (Photo credit: Will Allen)

For his part, Allen contended that significant progress without the buy-in of large corporations was untenable. “We can no longer be so idealistic that we hurt the very people we’re trying to help. Keeping groups that have the money and the power to be a significant part of the solution away from the Good Food Revolution will not serve us,” he said at the time, in a statement on the Growing Power blog.

Regardless of the source, from 2012 through 2015, more money was exiting than entering Growing Power’s doors. Internal Revenue Service documents from 2014 show that the nonprofit was running substantial deficits, in excess of $2 million that year. In 2015, an investor in a for-profit spinoff, Will Allen Farms LLC, filed a lawsuit against Allen and his accountant Thomas Schmitt. The investor alleged that she had been misled about the development of an industrial laundry site to be turned into an aquaponic facility.

The Fallout

People close to the organization were saddened by the news of its dissolution, but many were not surprised. As far back as 2014, the Chicago chapter of Growing Power had begun to move toward independent accounting and funding strategies. Warning signs about Growing Power’s financial health were embedded in its mandatory annual filings and felt by its vendors.

And despite Allen’s passion and dedication, he may have suffered from a bit of founder’s syndrome. Fisher theorizes that Allen’s inability to empower and retain an operational management team was the main cause of the organization’s collapse.

“Will centralized all the power in himself, but he was never around. It became dysfunctional,” Fisher said. “They tried to at times bring in others to run day-to-day operations so Will could have a more outward-facing role, but that person would resign and inevitably they’d go back to the old system.”

Will Allen (back row, right) at a 2016 White House garden event, alongside Barack and Michelle Obama, Alonzo Mourning, the Muppets, and many others. (Official White House photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Will Allen (back row, right) at a 2016 White House garden event, alongside Barack and Michelle Obama, Alonzo Mourning, Sesame Street characters, and many others. (Official White House photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Erika Allen, who has reorganized the Chicago chapter of Growing Power as Urban Growers Collective (UGC), also noted an inadequate composition of board members as a vulnerability of the organization. “There were weaknesses on the board. A little analysis would’ve exhibited the losses, and that the nonprofit needed to run more like a business,” she said.

Conflicting Accounts

After Growing Power announced its discontinuance, it was reported that Brian Sales, founder of Green Veterans, would assume the transition. Sales, a Florida veteran who’d only met Allen one year prior, said he created Green Vets as a means of trauma resolution and green jobs skills training for military veterans. He reached out to Allen and soon after had joined him in Milwaukee for a 30-day aquaponics training. He was persistent about working with Allen, who soon gave him a job as an assistant facilities manager at the headquarters in Milwaukee, where he worked until the nonprofit’s closure in November 2017.

Prior to Growing Power’s shutdown, Sales began working with Groundwork Milwaukee, a nonprofit chapter of an environmental land trust that also supports more than 100 urban farms in the city. The hope was that Sales would help manage the transition.

Deneine Powell, Groundwork Milwaukee’s executive director, told Civil Eats she was in regular communication with Allen and that she was under the impression that he planned to retire. Sales also seemed certain about Allen’s retirement, and reported that he was “always hinting at retirement” and grooming Sales as a successor.

Allen denied making any arrangements with Sales. And while he wouldn’t share any details about his plans with Civil Eats, he said he hopes to reveal more soon. “My focus has to be on getting this place back and getting possession of it,” Allen said of the lot on Silver Springs Street.

It’s clear that, in the meantime, Allen, Sales, and Groundwork all appear to be actively working to shape Allen’s legacy. But just how coordinated those efforts will be is another question.

Lessons Learned

What can the demise of Growing Power teach the food movement? For some, collaboration (or lack thereof) was a prominent theme. Sales speculates that an inadvertent siloing of Growing Power left it too exposed. “One organization cannot take on that big of a task; you need multiple organizations that will work as part of the spokes on a wheel,” he said. Meanwhile, Allen echoed his daughter’s sentiments that a lack of oversight by board members compromised the organization’s financial health.

What is certain, however, is the undeniable impact the organization has had over the last two and a half decades. “The training, learning, and benefits of Growing Power will be felt for years to come,” said Ricardo Salvador, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a former program officer for the Kellogg Foundation. Everyone Civil Eats spoke to for this article unanimously agreed on that point.

Erika Allen said UGC is now centered on empowering young people of color through education. “Growing Power was about feeding people, but for us, the education component is higher-stakes,” she said. She noted that training programs are expensive to operate—even those that generate their own revenue tend to rely on outside funding. More fastidious financial oversight would’ve likely helped Growing Power arrive at the same conclusions, but for now, she hopes “to take the lessons of what worked” and move forward.

Will Allen photo by Carlos Ortiz (Photo courtesy of Will Allen)

Will Allen photo by Carlos Ortiz (Photo courtesy of Will Allen.

It’s clear that Will Allen’s legacy will live on in the many organizations that grew from his work. In addition to empowering a generation of community leaders all across the country, who have gone on to radically transform their lives and neighborhoods, he also succeeded at teaching and protecting vulnerable Black children in an era when very few other entities were up to the task.

A common adage for Allen was, “We’re not just growing food, we’re growing community.” By that measure, his success is timeless. Allen is optimistic about the next generation of farmers, but he knows it will be a hard road and frames this challenge as only he can. “To be a sustainable farmer and grow without chemicals is harder than being a professional athlete,” he said, adding that he knows this first-hand, “because I‘ve been both.”

Top photo: Will Allen in a Growing Power greenhouse. (Photo credit: Growing Power)

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

View Comments

  1. Tuesday, March 13th, 2018
    Thank you for this article. I had been following Will Allen and Growing Power since they started in the early 2000s and wondered what became of them.

    I manage a veterans non-profit and I agree that collaboration and education are the keys to success!
  2. dan desalvo
    Tuesday, March 13th, 2018
    Having been a member of numerous community boards, the core issues of succession and sustainability seemed to be the major issues. If your leader was "birthed" the movement, it seems it becomes their child and they have a hard time allowing others to participate in it's rearing. Additionally, any organization needs to be fully aware that the number 1 responsibility is to keep the organization financially stable. Sometimes you have compromise ideals to make that happen.
  3. Tuesday, March 13th, 2018
    I manage a small nonprofit and I was trained by Mr Allen.Our urban farm In Brooklyn was shaped by the Growing Power model. We know the good food movement learned so much from expertise.
  4. Pam Murphy
    Tuesday, March 13th, 2018
    Trial and error are part of all businesses. I hope the mission is continued. Real food for everyone and growing it in inner cities benefits all of us. Pointing fingers resolves nothing.
  5. Regina Johnson Phillips
    Tuesday, March 13th, 2018
    I was trained and inspired by the undisputed godfather of urban gardening. I find it difficult to accept that $500,000 was the downfall of this organization with their proven history and track record. I do not believe that we are hearing the complete story. What is the real backstory? Truth be known.
    • Kris Oluich
      Thursday, March 15th, 2018
      I had the same impression that the financial “nuts and bolts” of what transpired is missing. But given that there are lawsuits afloat, perhaps silence is prudent, if not mandatory.
      Having said that, why is this man’s visage not on the dollar bill? He’s an exceptional human being who transcends locality and has left a border-less legacy. I wish him all the best; it’ll be hard for him to personally recover.
  6. Tuesday, March 13th, 2018
    Thank you Civil eats for the excellent article and growing power and Will Allen for the invaluable learning for the community!

    We need to find ways to fund these economies through the community at scale, growing power is just another example of the economy failing sustainable, equitable development and the need for an alternative.
  7. Mark Shepard
    Wednesday, March 14th, 2018
    This is very sad. I have read his book and looked forward to visit Growing Power's Operation. I have seen all his youtube videos. He is an inspiration and I hope one day he will be able to get back his property and start over. Best wishes Will. May God Bless You and Hold You in his everlasting love.
  8. Kevin E. Jones
    Wednesday, March 14th, 2018
    Thank you Mr. Allen for the training you gave me and the encouragement to make a difference in my community like you did in yours. God be with you til we meet again.
  9. Thursday, March 15th, 2018
    Thanks for this round-up! I visited the farm back in 2012 and was blown away by the thoughtfulness of it all. Hoping they get things back up and running.
  10. Patricia stansbury
    Thursday, March 15th, 2018
    Mr. Allen ran a good race and lifted the good food revolution. And to everything there is a season. It's time to pass the torch and thank him for his work. He came to Richmond and other Virginia locales a number of times, I just thought of the numerable people he taught the principles of urban agriculture, as he developed them along side many coworkers. I recently told friends with high tunnels his idea for warming them using compost piled against the outer walls. "It's all about the soil, it's all about the soil." How many thousands have heard him intone those words.

    From the Women's Club of Virginia to the Virginia Association for Biological Farming, (VABF.ORG)
    he touched peoples hearts and souls with his passion, intelligence and instinct for change through cooperation with community.
  11. Wayne C. Ortner
    Thursday, March 15th, 2018
    Mr. Allen you got me to doing years ago , your ideas and thoughts will always be with me. You inspired me more ways than one. Thank you
  12. Paul hickner
    Thursday, March 15th, 2018
    Will should not be faulted for stumbling. We learned in business school at U of D, that the skills, talents and personal attributes of those entrepreneurs that start organizations, are different from the attributes of those who run mature organizations. An entrepreneur needs to excel in vision, inspiration and drive. A top manager of a mature organization needs to excel in planning, organizing, staffing and controlling. Proper selection of members of board of directors could be grouped with staffing. Accounting and auditing could be grouped under controlling. The transition from a start-up to a mature organization is often difficult. The pieces of the former organization, including the functions ( like composting and education ), internal benefits ( such as personal healing for workers with disabilities), and social benefits can be recognized and included in the new organization. Many lessons have been learned that can be incorporated. A business plan is essential, which includes analysis of goals, customers, markets, economic environment, enterprise design, etc. as a graduate of MSUs organic farmer training program, I hope the organization is not discarded, but rebuilt.
  13. Thursday, March 15th, 2018
    I was a board member of CFSC for many years with Will. I admired him then (I featured him in my book, No-Nonsense Guide to World Food)and I still do.
    I don't think we can talk about the failure of any organization in the food movement without understanding the overall weakness of the entire food movement. The movement was not strong enough to sustain Growing Power. To survive and expand, he had no choice but to focus on projects that were marginally productive and on funders who were not on-side. That was the movement's shortcoming, not Will's.
    I disagree totally with any analysis that looks at the problems faced by Growing Power as problems that can be understood only by looking at Growing Power -- without looking at overall problems such as racialized poverty, or social movements with very little economic or political clout.
  14. Sue Struthers
    Thursday, March 15th, 2018
    Will Allen is one of my personal heroes. I first heard him speak in 2008. He transformed ideas and lives, including my own. I am very sad to hear of the demise of Growing Power, but don't think that diminishes what he accomplished for so many for so long.
    As a person now actively involved with non-profits, trying to transform our local food system, I feel this is an immense loss.
  15. Kris Oluich
    Thursday, March 15th, 2018
    Non-profit or not, at the end of the year, the Books need to balance. The greatest egalitarian ideals eventually bow to the veracity of needing to earn something.
    How many farms have succumbed to this truth? The US dairy industry has been living on borrowed time for four years with below-production prices. No longer.
    This is one principle that I’ve unrelentingly “nagged” my mentees about. Yes, passion; but you need capital to buy supplies in the spring.
  16. ken hargesheimer
    Friday, March 16th, 2018
    Best way to produce food. Organic, no–till mini-farming in permanent beds, with permanent paths, using hand tools/power hand tools, takes little funds, increases yields 50 to 100%, reduces labor by 50 to 75%, reduces input/expenses to nearly 0 [seed only], creates healthy soil with high fertility, stops soil compaction, soil erosion, rain water runoff and eliminates most weed, disease and insect problems. Free dvd on request.
    • Monday, April 2nd, 2018
      I'm interested in the dvd you're offering.
    • Pat Gebes
      Tuesday, August 21st, 2018
      I am interested in your free DVD also. Please advise how to proceed.
  17. Saturday, March 17th, 2018
    No one will ever be able to accurately measure your beneficial impact, Will Allen. Literally hundreds of organizations and thousands of urban ag projects were shaped and inspired by your work. I feel so indebted to you and the Growing Food and Justice Initiative gatherings you and Erika cultivated. Your work and these gatherings were formative experiences that impacted the course of my life, and countless others. Planting Justice would not be what it is without your wisdom and generosity of spirit. The pioneer species in the ecological system face the toughest job. They plant themselves in infertile soil in harsh conditions and make life possible for the species to come. The food system and economic system were not ready for you, so you sought to transform those very structures, and in so doing, you changed what was possible and made fertile ground for those who came after you, myself included. Im sorry you didn’t have the support you needed in the end. Bless your heart, Will Allen, I pray you have no regrets and are filled with the joy and satisfaction of knowing you have followed your heart and done enormous good. If everyone fought and worked like you the world would be a much different place. We love you, and hope you will reach out to all of us, your wide community of national support, when there is something we can do to help you get your land back. THANK YOU Uncle!!!!
  18. Stuart Raburn
    Sunday, March 18th, 2018
    Will Allen shined a light on the biggest problem in our country [we're all eating poisons and the federal government is subsidizing it] and then rolled up his sleeves, figuratively of course, and did the hard work in presenting a solution. He is a true hero and inspired us in 2013 to begin a commercial farm. We never considered Growing Power the model for commercial farming but instead a vision and a powerful one it has been. Thank you Will and God bless you for everything you've done!
  19. Cleveland Lee
    Sunday, March 18th, 2018
    Well done Mr. Allen. You have giving hope to many. Healthy foods and proper eating habits improves our mental health. This stressful event will pass. God bless you.
  20. Sunday, March 18th, 2018
    Great organization and wonderful person. I met him at a Veterans Farmers Conference and he was very inspirational. I hope that they will keep moving forward and providing the great service and training that many people loved!
  21. Sunday, March 18th, 2018
    Thank you sir, got your hard work down into our veins and now we desire to eat and grow better food. The fishery is a real step forward. We in the hood wasn't thinking about hatching our own fish.
  22. Angela Burton
    Friday, March 23rd, 2018
    I believe in Growing Power and by faith they will be back!
  23. Monday, March 26th, 2018
    Even a non profit farm has bills to pay. If you can't do that you are not, "a going concern". Shut it down or sell it and hope your next venture is a going concern.
  24. Tarik A. Oduno
    Friday, March 30th, 2018
    To the family of "Grow Power" ; Bro. Will Allen, my our meditation, prayers, and eventually, I have faith
    that, the building of "Community", especially in this country; the Nanny Helen Burroughs, George Washington Carver model and others, that foundational to your, our growing the society from bottom up, as our fore parents, anchored the family nurturing.
    Grow Power", has touch the visionaries, pioneers, trailblazers, reformers , fence ridders ,
    band waggoners, & don't give a diggers.
    Yes, Bro. Will, "Grow Power", yours, others are giving pragmatic "HOPE", in doing the rise of growing community through fiscal cooperatives in the most fundamental area; produce where you live, PEOPLE, Community , a resourceful , interdependent society of actualize, producing engineers.
    My humble share is lenghty, however, im another 6'7"
    4Her, & basketballer, who believe in your "Trail Blazing " nurturing, in building community by producing; more than food.
    Your humble servant,
    Bro. T . A. ODUNO
  25. Javier
    Sunday, May 13th, 2018
    Frankly, as a former intern and apprentice, I'm not surprised. Turnover was extremely high, no one under executive management stayed there for more than 2 years, tops. They ran on donations, volunteer labor and squeezing as much out of eager young talent as quickly as possible before disposing of them. The Good Food movement deserved better.
  26. Monday, May 21st, 2018
    Thanks for this short treatise. It is exemplary of the elements that can either make or break the well meaning intentions of people and organizations that in earnest want to liberate those in greatest need. Its is imperative that we find solutions. All the best to Will & Erika Allen. They continue to set an example of what is possible.
  27. Rhea Anderson
    Tuesday, June 12th, 2018
    Growing Power succeeded for 23 years as a small farmer's self-started business. That in it'self is quite an accomplishment.
  28. Jim Eichner
    Thursday, June 14th, 2018
    Thank you for the article, and Civil Eats work in general. I hold nothing but admiration for Will Allen and his vision, having visited and toured the Silver Spring facility three times over a decade. I also read and shared his book with other farmers. He has inspired me to return to farming (non-profit) through our church. Since 2012 we have sent 700,000 pounds of fresh produce to food banks in Western Washington at a cost of five cents a pound. The surge of funding and growth at Growing Power, is a cautionary tale for any organization. Managing growth is not simple or easy.
  29. Lois Koel
    Monday, August 13th, 2018
    I am interested in farming and making good food accessible to all. Will Allen's name has appeared in some of my college papers and presentations and I see him as a hero. Stateline Farm Beginnings gave me a scholarship to attend. Their program showed me how to write a business plan and find markets for products. New farmers have problems finding land to get started. Could growing power be a farm incubator for regenerative farming?