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Former basketball pro Will Allen spreads urban farming seed

Pro-basketball player-turned farmer, Will Allen is involved in more than 70 urban agriculture projects and outreach programs around the world. - Matthew Hoekstra photo
Pro-basketball player-turned farmer, Will Allen is involved in more than 70 urban agriculture projects and outreach programs around the world.
— image credit: Matthew Hoekstra photo

Will Allen is known as a global superstar to local urban farming advocates. But the towering former pro basketball player isn't entirely comfortable with his celebrity status.

"I was never planning to be sitting here," he said over lunch at Terra Nova Rural Park Wednesday. "I was driving down the street, saw the for sale sign and stopped. All I wanted to do was farm."

Allen is head of the U.S.-based Growing Power, a non-profit organization that aims to provide people with equal access to healthy, high-quality, local, affordable food. He met with organizers of Richmond Sharing Farm this week before delivering a lecture in Vancouver.

That sale sign Allen spotted is now home to a farm and community food centre in Milwaukee, Wis.

Allen said he bought the land in 1993 for "selfish reasons"—a place where he could sell product grown on his wife's family farm that he had taken over.

But his life changed direction when young people in the neighbourhood, including kids who lived in the largest low-income public housing project in the city, asked him for help with growing their own vegetables.

He became a teacher and trainer almost overnight.

Two years later he started Growing Power, which grew into a training centre for methods in urban agriculture and building food security systems.

Today the organization has a staff of 50 and is involved in more than 70 projects and outreach programs around the world. Last May, Time magazine named Allen one of the world's 100 most influential people.

Born the son of a sharecropper, Allen became a standout basketball player in high school despite his father's strict rule: no sports until farm chores were done. He earned a basketball scholarship and later played professionally in the U.S. and Europe, where he reconnected with his farming roots.

It was in Europe where he saw farmers use intensive methods on small plots. He started his own garden there, growing food for his family and teammates.

On Wednesday he told a dozen local urban farming advocates that positive things are happening. Political change is being made because people are pushing for it, he said.

"I'm excited because 15 years ago, you weren't in the game," he said to the group. "It's not going to happen overnight. It's going to take a lot of passionate people to stay the course."

Keys to making an urban farm a success are consistency and developing solid business practices and principles, he said.

If a restaurant buys arugula from an urban farmer, he said, the farm must be able to provide the product year-round.

Said Allen: "We need to be really smart because a lot of times, idealism stops us from helping people."

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