Urban Agriculture Guru Will Allen Fails to Inspire

Will Allen's two-hour message: "We have to get past just talk."

Credit: Flickr / Organic Nation

Will Allen spreading worms, the key to good soil

Will Allen and his Growing Power colossuses in the world of urban agriculture


When I finally was able to see Will Allen, urban farmer and CEO of the much-celebrated Milwaukee-based urban farming project Growing Power, speak on the February 2, it was the third time I had tried to see him. His first two proposed talks in Vancouver were both cancelled last minute. So you can imagine, after two false starts, as I sat in the packed Croatian Cultural Centre, how amped I was to finally hear what he had to say about urban ag and the cultivation, production and delivery of healthy food.  


Never meet your heroes.

I was disappointed. There, I said it. I haven’t heard anyone else voice the same opinion, but nor have I heard inspired chatter following his visit. I think part of the disappoinment comes as a result of comparison. Allen was introduced by Michael Ableman, a vanguard of the organics movement and an incredibly charismatic speaker.


Will Allen’s presentation consisted of Allen talking us through a reel of far too many photos (700, in fact). The photos all showed the amazing accomplishments of Allen and his team but left me feeling like the dinner guest forced to look through someone else’s holiday snaps.


Will Allen’s key points

Lacklustre presentation aside, Will Allen has a wealth of experience to pass on. Here are the gems we can glean from his experience:


1. Everything comes down to poop

Our soil is very depleted, says Allen, and we need to focus on growing new soil. As well as sourcing various waste products (e.g., brewery grains, wood chips and food waste), Growing Power relies heavily on vermiculture to provide the rich soils needed for urban gardening. Before starting any new project, Allen brings in truckloads of rich humus, for which he employs thousands and thousands of red wriggler worms to produce.


The City of Vancouver’s vermiculture composting program is a great way, for apartment dwellers especially, to start composting. (Also, check out Heather Lochner’s post on how to organize your kitchen to make composting as easy as garbaging.)


2. Community gardens versus urban agriculture

Community gardens are great as are the people who run them and gardens on rooftops. However, if we want to expand urban agriculture beyond the realm of hobby farmers we need to involve everyone, not just ecologically minded individuals, but also the corporations and politicians.


3. Urban agriculture versus local rural farming

As important as it is to reintegrate farming and agriculture into urban settings, we can’t do so to the detriment of local rural farmers. They are ones who make local farmers’ markets possible and so it’s important that we support them by continuing to demand fresh local produce and by paying a fair price for it. We will always need rural farms for crops that are too expansive to be grown in the city (such as vine crops, melons, squash, etc.).


4. The children are our future

The demographic of people interested in urban farming has shifted from people over 40 to those under 40. Many young people no longer possess the basic skills needed; skills like how to compost food correctly, plant plants, use tools or preserve food. Teaching young people and new generations these peripheral skills is vital to the success of urban farming.



I’m sure there are many out there who’ll disagree with my take on Will Allen’s oratory prowess. I’d love to hear how the experience enlightened and up-lifted others.