A descendent of sharecroppers, a former professional basketball player, a man hailed nationwide as a visionary – you could make an hour listening to Will Allen fascinating if you stuck just to his personal story.
But in an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” session at Eckstein Hall on Tuesday, Allen went beyond his own life and his pioneering work on urban agriculture to a broader and intriguing matter: His vision for creating a major economic base in Milwaukee around urban agriculture, and particularly commercial growth of fish in industrial sized tanks.
“I think we’re going to create thousands of jobs,” Allen told Gousha, Marquette Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy. “We’re the leading city in the nation in terms of food and water.” He added, “Fish today, that’s a huge opportunity.”
Allen said two commercial aquaculture firms are planning to develop operations in the city and Growing Power, the urban agriculture operation he heads, is including tanks for cultivating fish in an unusual five-story building it is planning for its home base along W. Silver Spring Dr., west of N. 51st St.
Allen said if he had a million pounds of lake perch fillets today, he could sell them all by tomorrow.
Allen started out with a small operation at the Silver Spring site in 1993. “I looked at it as a great opportunity to sell my farm produce,” he said. But the operation began to grow quickly, including through partnerships with several Milwaukee Public Schools that gave students experience with raising food.
In 2008, he won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award and, in 2010, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. He travels extensively and is frequently involved in healthy-food events with First Lady Michelle Obama.
But his view of himself is literally down to earth. “The main thing is, I’m a farmer,” Allen said. “I try to touch the soil every day.”
He advocates healthy eating for all, but his priority is low-income and minority communities, many of them “food deserts” with no major grocery stores and too many people who have bad eating habits.
“It’s really about social justice and food justice,” Allen told Gousha. “There isn’t enough healthy food in our communities.”
But he expects things to get better, and urban agriculture to be a key component of doing that, both in terms of the food that can be grown and the jobs that can be generated.
“I see change coming, and it’s going to be led by the next generation,” Allen said.
A video of the session can be viewed by clicking here.