Program and People News
Photo taken by Narayan Mahon
Growing Power’s Will Allen Joins Wisconsin Sea Grant’s Advisory Council
A national profile’s nothing new for Will Allen, 67, the former professional basketball player who’s used his charisma, drive and business acumen to champion the cause of urban farming, becoming one of the most recognizable faces of the modern food revolution. Working from the urban center of Milwaukee, where Growing Power, the organization he founded in 1993, is housed, Allen has spent the last two-plus decades training thousands in the art of aquaponics and urban aquaculture. Earlier this year, he became a member of Wisconsin Sea Grant’s Advisory Council, advising the organization on its upcoming strategic planning process and future research directions.
His addition to the council was simply the formalization of a relationship that’s been in place for many years. For more than a decade, Allen’s been collaborating with Fred Binkowski, Wisconsin Sea Grant’s aquaculture outreach specialist, to train more than a thousand people to become aquaponics farmers.
“We’re incredibly fortunate to have an individual of Will’s character and stature affiliated with our organization,” said Jim Hurley, Wisconsin Sea Grant’s director.
“I really wanted to spread the word,” said Allen. “I just want to see the industry grow, to provide good food and good jobs for people. I thought joining the council would be a great opportunity for my voice to be heard, to be able to voice some of the concerns of the inner city on these issues. Aquaponics needs someone to speak up for it and I think I can be that voice.”
Allen’s keenly aware that the biggest obstacle to continued growth of the aquaponics industry is proper training. It’s all too easy for an untrained fish farmer to make a mistake that results in the death of half the crop and an expensive, sometimes business-killing, financial loss.
“Growing a fish is much harder than growing a plant,” he noted.
Currently, most of the top-flight aquaponics training takes place within the university setting — in Wisconsin, at the School of Freshwater Sciences and at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility. Allen and Growing Power have been working to change that, since not every would-be entrepreneur has access to those resources.
“It’s about getting more people involved,” said Allen. “I can be the face, I can be one of the leaders, but this will ultimately be done by entrepreneurs. Nonprofits and the university have an important role to play, but entrepreneurs will be the ones who expand it.”
Infrastructure is the other big missing piece. While there’s no shortage of abandoned warehouses in places like downtown Milwaukee that could be converted to aquaponics operations, the lack of a privately held hatchery to provide enough fish fingerlings to fuel a new wave of aquaponics startups presents an ongoing problem. Allen and Binkowski have already moved to address the shortfall — they’ve partnered with a group called The Farmory to create a hatchery in the Green Bay area. Allen’s also working to open an urban hatchery near Kent and North avenues in Milwaukee.