‘It’s all about the soil,’ urban farmer Will Allen tells MCC-Longview audience

MCC-Longview President Kirk Nooks (left) presented author Will Allen with a Longview Lakers cap after his convocation address.
MCC-Longview President Kirk Nooks (left) presented author Will Allen with a Longview Lakers cap after his convocation address. (Photos by Clay Bussey/MCC)

If he said it once, he said it three times. At least.

“You have to know what’s in the soil. It’s all about the soil,” urban farming superstar Will Allen told the audience at MCC-Longview’s spring convocation April 19 at the Pavilion at John Knox Village.

Allen, author of “The Good Food Revolution,” and his fellow farmers at the Milwaukee nonprofit Growing Power “grow” their own soil. We’re talking compost by the tons, a process that also involves tons (well, not literally) of worms.

Growing Power is best known for its original 3-acre farm-in-the-city, which Allen bought in 1993, but the organization has branched out to other locations, including some that are actually rural.

Allen’s day at MCC-Longview including talking to students in psychology and sociology classes, where topics included the buy-local movement (theoretically, food should cost less if it’s not transported across the country) and, for gardeners, which kinds of seeds are best.

A video introduced Will Allen's urban farm operation to the audience at the Pavilion at John Knox Village in Lee's Summit.
A video introduced Allen’s farm operation to the audience at the Pavilion at John Knox Village in Lee’s Summit. (Click any picture to see larger.)

Allen was the guest of honor at a catered lunch on campus, although we heard he wanted to try Jack Stack barbecue while in Kansas City.

His autobiography was the community-wide Common Read at MCC-Longview this semester. The campus and community were encouraged to read the book, and about a dozen MCC instructors used it in their classes. Many students were in the convocation audience.

One was Marquise White, who would be writing a “reflections” paper afterward for her psychology class. What has been her takeaway from reading Allen’s book?

“I’m trying to eat more fruits and vegetables,” White says, “stay away from meat, eat more whole grains.”

She’s not a gardener — at least not yet — but she has fond memories of her grandma’s homegrown fried green tomatoes.

Earlier in the day, Allen talked to a group of students on campus.
Earlier in the day, Allen talked to a group of students on campus.

In his convocation address Allen, sporting a ballcap, Growing Power hoodie and jeans, declared that food is the most important thing in our lives.

“And I’m talking about good food, not just food.” Communities need to be able to grow the “culturally appropriate good food they want.”

This generation of students will lead that charge, Allen believes. If they didn’t learn about where their food comes from as grade-schoolers, they’re learning about it in college, and many students are “challenging the food that they’re fed in the cafeteria.”

Allen himself challenged MCC-Longview students to start a campus garden, which President Kirk Nooks said he and the campus’ community partners would explore.

Back to the soil, Allen said Growing Power composted 40 million pounds last year. Making your own is important because “our soil is contaminated, we know that,” Allen says.

He showed slides of every aspect of his farms, including the squirmy worms, which he considers urban livestock. “These are my other employees,” he said of the 7,000 pounds of worms.

Allen, wearing a Growing Power hoodie, showed slides detailing his farming operation, then took a few questions at the end.
Allen, wearing a Growing Power hoodie, showed slides detailing his farming operation, then took a few questions at the end.

Growing Power also has human workers, including teenagers. Is it hard to attract young people to the farm? No, because they earn a salary, for one thing. Plus “there’s something very spiritual about touching the soil.”

Allen is also an advocate of hydroponics, year-round growing in greenhouses and renewable energy. The Milwaukee operation generates about one-quarter of its electricity from solar panels.

“This is something we can do,” Allen says. “And this is something we have to do — to grow this local food.”

Angela Bahner
Angela Bahner

Angela Bahner, chair of the Common Read committee at MCC-Longview, said a small group of instructors read 10 books last summer and then narrowed the field to three, which faculty voted on. A variety of events, including discussion groups, film screenings and faculty speakers, have been held this semester.

Allen’s book is “a great example of finding your life’s passion and making it your life’s work,” Bahner says.

The convocation program and the Common Read series “would not have been a success without the support of our campus and local community,” says Ebony Bowman, program coordinator in the Longview president’s office. “It has truly been a pleasure to work with our faculty, staff and sponsors to bring such a rewarding experience to the Longview students and to our service area.”

Earlier: ‘Good Food Revolution’ author to speak at MCC-Longview event

Will Allen signed copies of his book, "The Good Food Revolution," after the program.
Will Allen signed copies of his book, “The Good Food Revolution,” after the program.