Growing Power founder Will Allen to retire as nonprofit's debts mount

Sarah Hauer
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Growing Power founder and CEO Will Allen is retiring, leaving his urban farming nonprofit to alter course as it faces nearly a half-million dollars in pending legal judgments.

Allen, 68, confirmed Monday he will retire once Growing Power decides on, and announces, its future direction. Allen, also an author and "genius grant" winner, has become a national leader in the food revolution who travels the world teaching how to grow good community-based food. 

Growing Power founder Will Allen in 2012.

"We haven't decided what's going to happen next," Allen said Monday. The redirection, he said, is necessary, in part, "because Growing Power ran into some financial issues." 

Growing Power has eight pending judgments totaling $485,525, according to Circuit Court records. The claims were filed by a variety of parties, including the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, truck rental companies and a former landlord.

Additionally, Will Allen faces a $196,375 pending judgment filed by First Farmers Bank and Trust. 

Filings with the Internal Revenue Service from 2012 through 2015 show the nonprofit running deficits each year, some years in excess of $2 million.

At its peak, Growing Power had nearly 150 employees, Allen said.

"It's less than that now, between Milwaukee and Chicago. It's a lot less than that now."

As of 2015, Growing Power had 94 employees and about 1,500 volunteers, according to a filing with the IRS.

Operations at Growing Power halted last week because of the reorganization. It is not delivering produce to customers, its Milwaukee cafe on Martin Luther N. King Drive was closed Monday and its main telephone lines are disconnected.

Some employees remain at Growing Power's headquarters on W. Silver Spring Drive. 

Allen said Monday a future plan, led by Growing Power's board of directors, will be released in the next week. 

The Growing Power Cafe and Market at 2737 N. King Drive is closed Monday.

Brian Sales, director of operations at Growing Power, will succeed Allen. Sales, who has been at Growing Power for less than a year, said Allen is "assisting us very closely in this transition." 

Sales said an organization he co-founded, Green Veterans Wisconsin, could have a future link to Growing Power. Sales said the details are still being figured out and the financial judgments against Growing Power are "all being factored in." 

Green Veterans Wisconsin is a local initiative of Green Veterans, which helps ease the military-to-civilian transition with green entrepreneurship, sustainable building and green living. Sales said he spent 10 years in the military. 

Allen "will definitely be a very close consultant," Sales said. "He'll be a soundboard for me moving forward. He's proved that urban farming is possible." 

Allen founded Growing Power in 1995. He bought property with two rundown greenhouses in 1993 and started to sell his produce. It evolved into the nonprofit Growing Power as Allen brought young people into his farming and started thinking about food as a tool for social change. 

The Growing Power facility at 55th and Silver Spring was closed Monday when it normally would have been open.

Allen was awarded a $500,000 "genius grant" in 2008 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The award recognizes people with "exceptional creativity, as demonstrated through a track record of significant achievement, and manifest promise for important future advances."

Allen's mission has often been to create new infrastructure to grow food to increase access to affordable, healthy food. According to its website, Growing Power works with more than 70 projects and outreach programs in Milwaukee and across the country. Growing Power extends beyond dirt and seeds with vermicomposting and aquaponics.

Allen was at the White House with former first lady Michelle Obama to launch her "Let's Move!" initiative to reverse childhood obesity as one of four national spokesmen in 2010. That same year, Time magazine named Allen to its list of 100 of the world's most influential people.  

Allen said he's been thinking about retirement for a couple of years. 

"We’ve been looking for someone to come in and take over, but it’s difficult to find the skill set to do this," Allen said. "Our whole mission from the beginning was to prove that urban agriculture could be a viable thing to do primarily to entrepreneurs."

In his retirement, Allen plans to write some children's books and a how-to guide on urban agriculture.