A Ground-Up Approach to the Economy

Worms in Washington can't ease America's economic problems, but Will Allen has millions of worms that can.

"It's all about the soil," he explains.

Allen's worms are creating shovel-ready jobs. "We can create thousands of jobs," he says.

Allen, 62 years old, is an urban-farming legend and CEO of Milwaukee's Growing Power Inc.

He has developed a sustainable model for turning America's increasingly neglected inner-city properties into agricultural marvels. He's also providing fresh food to thousands of disadvantaged people living in what he calls "food deserts," areas bereft of groceries yet flooded with fast food.

On farms no larger than plots for modest grocery stores, Allen's nonprofit organization produces vegetables, herbs, fish, chickens, turkeys, ducks, rabbits, goats and bees. He's also developing plans for farms in five-story buildings, going vertical in his pursuit of more food production from less land.

Food often travels more than 1,000 miles before it gets to your plate, not only losing nutritional value but wasting precious fossil fuel along the way. What if farms could be closer?

Last year, Michelle Obama brought Allen to the White House as she unveiled her anti-obesity campaign, and Time magazine named him one of the world's most influential people. He's also won several awards with big bucks attached, including a "Genius Grant" from the MacArthur Foundation.

I met Allen last week at the Colorado Health Symposium, sponsored by the Colorado Health Foundation, in Keystone, Colo. At that hour, lawmakers in Washington were planting the nation more deeply in the economic muck, yet here was one guy who knew a way out.

Allen grew up the son of a sharecropper on a small farm near Rockville, Md., where he wasn't allowed to play basketball until he got his chores done. He became the first African-American to play for the University of Miami Hurricanes in 1969. "I said, "I'll never go back to that farm."

After college, he was drafted by the NBA's Baltimore Bullets and then the ABA's Miami Floridians, but soon went to play pro ball in Europe.

It turned out Allen liked having his hands in the dirt. He started hanging out with Belgian farmers who raised things the way his father did, without chemicals.

After basketball, Allen survived bouts of cancer, worked as a district manager for Kentucky Fried Chicken, and endured years as a marketer for Procter & Gamble Co. (PG). In 1993, he bought a financially distressed nursery near a drug-peddler-infested housing project in Milwaukee and started getting neighborhood kids involved in creating soil and growing food.

America's agricultural lands are 50% less fertile than they used to be, Allen says, so he uses worms to break down compost piles, creating fresh, organic dirt and fertilizer for his crops. The compost also generates heat for his green houses as it degrades. Water cycles from plants and soil to tanks filled with perch and tilapia. Renewable energy sources provide power.

What begins with worms employs more than 100 people, some of whom started volunteering when they were 8 years old. Allen says he pays "a living wage," which in Milwaukee averages in the range of $35,000 a year. And he's helped many of his workers land college scholarships.

Allen hopes to add 150 more employees, and he foresees thousands more employed in similar operations as the urban-farming trend he's helped inspire keeps growing.

Imagine rebuilding the economy from the ground up, instead of from the corporation down. Imagine putting abandoned properties to productive use, creating jobs in neighborhoods where there are none, and getting obese kids off junk food so they don't drain the health-care system.

Allen said that if more of the nation's farm subsidies went to sustainable urban-farming operations instead of commodity corn and soybean growers, America would be a healthier and more financially sound place.

He's rife with warnings about food scares, chemical additives, malnutrition and a broken food system, but he does not shun the modern corporation altogether. "We are working with Wal-Mart, Cisco, Northwestern Mutual, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo Bank, PNC Bank...and others," Allen said. "Those top-down operators are now wanting to be at the good food revolution table. "

Allen is also working on a book and shopping around a pilot for a reality TV show to spread his vision of a decentralized food system. The urban-farming revolution is coming, he says, but it entails hard work, dirty hands and worms.

"Farming," Allen said, "is one of the most humbling things you can do."

(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. The column is published each Tuesday and Thursday at 9 a.m. ET. Contact Al at al.lewis@dowjones.com or tellittoal.com)