Producing high volumes of affordable food

Growing Power, Inc. makes use of threecentury-old greenhouses on the grounds of ForestHome Cemetery on the south side of Milwaukee.

Growing Power, Inc. makes use of three century-old greenhouses on the grounds of Forest Home Cemetery on the south side of Milwaukee.
Photos courtesy of Growing Power.

Will Allen has a prominent slide in one of his PowerPoint presentations. It’s a powerful image, but as the founder and chief executive officer of Growing Power, Inc. in Milwaukee, everything about the former professional basketball player turned urban farmer is powerful.

The slide depicts a photo in each of four quadrants. It’s the slide in the upper left-hand corner of tombstones in Forest Home Cemetery that’s the most telling, the one that helps Allen promote one of his leading messages: Healthy food helps prevent premature death.

“What I tell an audience is that if we can get people to eat what we’re growing in these other pictures, they’ll be able to stay out of there [the cemetery],” he says.

The two – Growing Power and Forest Home – are uniquely related in a highly unusual partnership in growing. The historic 200-acre Forest Home Cemetery on the south side of Milwaukee is once again about life and not just death. The cemetery’s three century-old greenhouses (dating from circa 1900) are in use once more.

In the past, the greenhouses were used to grow the flowers for the cemetery business, and now they are used to grow vegetables and greens for the nonprofit Growing Power, which feeds the city’s masses, keeping them from early graves.

For the cemetery, which is the final resting place for most of the city’s forefathers and prominent families, the tie-in with agriculture isn’t that much of a surprise. The site has a history of growing that’s traced back to American Indians. In fact, in the 1700s, the patch was once known as Indian Fields when corn was king. During World War II, the cemetery planted a Victory Garden to supply employees with vegetables.

“We’re always looking for space to put up greenhouses or to take over existing greenhouses,” Allen says.

The greenhouses at Forest Home, classic glass-roofed, A-frame structures, sat idle for nearly a decade because it was too expensive to heat them during the winter months when the cemetery was using them to grow flowers. The annual cost for heating the greenhouses had reached about $20,000 when the cemetery decided to shut them down in 2000, according to Tom Kursel, president of Forest Home Cemetery.

Initially, the nonprofit was asked to relocate the donated greenhouses or tear them down. However, to mitigate the costs associated with either move, it was agreed that they would remain on cemetery grounds and be rehabilitated and used there.

“I looked them over,” Allen says. “They were over 100 years old, and if we took them down, we would have never been able to put them back up.”

Growing Power, which has its own in-house construction/maintenance crew, invested a couple thousand dollars to get the greenhouses up and running again.

“It was a good decision,” Allen says. “It’s been a good partnership, and it’s unique. I travel all over the country, and the only other organization I found was leasing just a little bit of land at the edge of a cemetery. I haven’t heard of anyone else growing inside cemetery grounds.”

Now, when the cemetery hosts tours of the grounds, the greenhouses are part of the loop. Plus, there’s the additional income from the lease agreement. For Growing Power, it has another year-round growing location. It’s a win-win.

“I believe our greenhouse story may be interesting,” Kursel admits.

High-volume food production

Growing Power has built over 100 different relationships or partnerships in its 20-year existence and commitment to urban agriculture. Those partnerships come in all shapes and sizes, but all feed into Allen’s overall objective of “getting the same type of foods to all folks, regardless of economic conditions.”

The food grown in the cemetery greenhouses is processed through other Growing Power facilities.

The cemetery’s greenhouses are most important for winter greens production, and they offer a solution for extending the growing season. The glass roofs provide a best-case scenario for growing greens. The staff seeds once with crops like arugula, and then by shading every other week gets a biweekly cutting. In the summer, when it really heats up inside, the staff has to switch to warm-weather crops, such as basil, that thrive in the heat.

Growing Power can produce a high volume of affordable food because Allen has developed cost-efficient renewable energy systems to nurture fast-growing plants in tight urban spaces. In fact, in 2008 he was awarded a $500,000 “genius grant” by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The award provides recipients $100,000 a year for five years with no strings attached. Allen is only the second farmer ever to win that grant. He also received $100,000 in 2005 from the Ford Foundation on behalf of urban farming work.

In February 2010, he was invited to the White House to join first lady Michelle Obama in launching “Let’s Move,” her signature leadership program to reverse the epidemic of childhood obesity in America. In May 2010, Allen was named to the Time 100 World’s Most Influential People list.

Allen was raised on his father’s farm outside Washington, D.C. His father, a former sharecropper in the South, headed north in the 1930s and kept growing and teaching his sons to grow. Today, Allen’s organization is training 1,500 new farmers a year.


As part of an ongoing research project, the nonprofit is training 20 farmers a month in what Allen says isn’t an easy agricultural science: greenhouse heating in the winter through aquaponics, a closed system of platforms that integrate fish and vegetable farming. In the system, large tanks of water stocked with fish, such as tilapia, are heated. The water releases heat into the air, so no other energy source is required. Plants keep the water clean for the fish, which are sold as food.

“It’s one more different piece for farmers – learning to keep fish alive,” he says. “It’s different than keeping plants alive.”

The nonprofit currently grows food in 25 acresof greenhouse space, and the plan is to expandthat to over 100 acres.

The nonprofit currently grows food in 25 acres of greenhouse space, and the plan is to expand that to over 100 acres.

At Growing Power’s headquarters, the Community Food Center urban farm, Allen uses watercourses through a raceway holding tomatoes, greens and arugula. Water then tumbles down a pipe to the next raceway, which is filled with watercress, before it empties into a 4-foot pool filled with perch. Gravel and the plants act as a filter, and the fish waste acts as a nutrient for the plants.

Though Growing Power does not use aquaponics to heat the cemetery greenhouses, there are over 100,000 fish at the Milwaukee headquarters. The organization is also purchasing a 50,000-square-foot fish facility for continued experimentation in aquaponics.

Always with an interest in quantitative analysis, Growing Power is trying to answer questions like: How many fish are necessary to sustain a $50,000 or $70,000-a-year job? How many hoop houses does it take to do the same? Without those numbers, Allen says it’s difficult for a grower to develop a strong business plan. Growing Power needs to ask the same questions as it continues to build upon its own infrastructure.

With 140 employees, there are plans to add another 100 positions within the next year. The nonprofit is currently growing in 25 acres of greenhouse space and on 200 acres of fields. However, the plan is to expand to over 100 acres of greenhouse space.

“We need just a few more years to totally change the dynamics of the local food supply from less than 1 percent of the supply local to over 10 percent of it from local sources,” Allen says. “The key is the soil. Mostly what we do is grow soil.”

Former pro basketball player turned urban farmerWill Allen is the founder and chief executive officerof the nonprofit Growing Power, Inc. in Milwaukee.

Former pro basketball player turned urban farmer Will Allen is the founder and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Growing Power, Inc. in Milwaukee.

Growing Power composts 40 million pounds of food waste a year, turning it into 10,000 yards of compost. In all, it turns over 3,000 trays of plants a week.

“Organic farming is different than conventional,” Allen says. “Organic farming is an art form, and it requires developing a skill set to become good at it. Organic farmers can’t read about it in a book, and you don’t learn it overnight.”

One of the newer thrusts of the organization is making deep, quantitative connections between the medical community and the need for healthy food – for example, evaluating the nutritional value of fresh local food compared to food that’s shipped in from overseas.

“The best-case scenario is that we get food into our bellies that is a day or a day and a half old, rather than food shipped into the country that’s 10 days old,” Allen says.

All those greenhouses, even in unlikely places such as Forest Home Cemetery, help bring that scenario closer to reality.

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use, and sports and recreation topics.