Photo: © 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation
For urban farmer Will Allen, unearthing a clump of loamy dirt laced with a tangle of baby worms is a moment to be cherished.

"This is the most fertile soil on Earth," says Allen, 60, holding out his wriggling treasure on a recent Sunday at Growing Power, the three-acre nonprofit farm he established in 1995 in Milwaukee. Allen, a 2008 winner of a MacArthur Fellowship, and his team of 35 full-time employees and 1,000 volunteers use sustainable agricultural practices to grow 159 kinds of fruits, vegetables, and edible flowers. They also raise honeybees, fish, poultry, sheep, and goats. The bounty is sold at farmers' markets, bundled into low-cost baskets for local families, and served at local restaurants.

Allen is at the forefront of a burgeoning movement to replace huge industrialized food systems with smaller sustainable agricultural practices. It's a far cry from what he imagined as a child, growing up on a farm in Rockville, Maryland. After earning a basketball scholarship to the University of Miami, Allen played pro ball in Florida and Belgium before embarking on a career in marketing. In 1995, after helping low-income kids with an organic gardening project, he decided to make it his mission to bring affordable healthy foods to families in poor city neighborhoods. Fourteen years later, he shares his agrarian philosophies with about 10,000 visitors a year. In a recent essay (, Allen writes: "It will be an irony, certainly, but a sweet one, if millions of African-Americans whose grandparents left the farms of the South for the factories of the North, only to see those factories close, should now find fulfillment in learning once again to live close to the soil and to the food it gives to all of us."

Karen Cullotta is a Chicago writer

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