Growing produce, and jobs, in downtown Milwaukee
(CBS News) MILWAUKEE - Will Allen's childhood revolved around his family's farm, where he put in long hours and sold vegetables door-to-door. When he grew to be 6-foot-7, new opportunities arose -- basketball.
"When I became a high school All-American, I had over 100 scholarships to college," Allen said. "I said, 'Never again will I go back to that farm.'"
He played college ball at the University of Miami and went on to a pro career in Europe followed by success as a corporate executive at Procter and Gamble. But in 1993, at age 43, Allen was driving through Milwaukee and saw a "for sale" sign that changed his life.
"I just had this burning desire to want to farm," he said. "I cashed in all my retirement to purchase this place. It was a tremendous gamble."
In this day and age, when everyone's talking about a more high-tech society, and those kinds of jobs, farming would seem to be going in the opposite direction of that.
"We need to figure out how do we feed all this growing population with less land," Allen said. "As we sit here and talk today, we're losing rural farmers and we're losing rural farmland."
The last piece of farmland in Milwaukee was surrounded by houses and fast food restaurants. It gave Allen the chance to achieve two goals: to bring healthy food to the inner city and to create jobs in the community. He dubbed his new enterprise "Growing Power."
"I want to make sure that everybody has access to the same good foods, culturally appropriate good food, regardless of their economic status," Allen said.
Growing Power is now considered the preeminent model for urban farming. It grows more than 150 kinds of produce, which it sells to restaurants, schools and residents. It employs more than 100 people.
One of them is Karen Parker. She met Allen 20 years ago when she was a single mother and a college dropout. Now she's the director of Growing Power.
"If it wasn't for Will Allen, I wouldn't be in the position that I am today," Parker said. I would have never made it this far. I wouldn't be the woman that I am today. I give him a lot of credit for that."
She's a professional, a homeowner -- and a farmer.
Growing Power now has more than 20 plots on 200 acres in Milwaukee and Chicago. Its revenue last year was more than $5 million. Allen has training sites in 15 cities across the country and has written a book to help others follow a vision that was in his DNA.
"I'm the kind of person -- I never want to give up on something," he said. "If somebody tells me ... 'You can't do that, Will,' I would work -- I would spend probably 10 years proving to you that I could do it."
For Will Allen, the proof grows every day, down on the farm, in the middle of the city
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