Oct. 11, 2008 — -- When most people think of farms, they think flat, endless fields of corn or wheat in the heartland of the American Midwest.
When former professional basketball player Will Allen thinks of farms, he thinks community centers and, maybe later, skyscrapers.
Watch the story Saturday on Focus Earth, part of Discovery's Planet Green Network. You can also see the story on "Good Morning America" this Sunday.
Allen, 59, is CEO of Growing Power, an organization that built a farm right in the middle of a Milwaukee residential neighborhood to help feed the community's residents affordably in a practice known as urban farming.
Although the farm is relatively tiny at 2 acres, it can produce enough food to sustain 2,000 people.
"Well, my goal has always been to feed people healthy, safe, affordable food and make sure that everybody has access to the same food, regardless of your economic situation," Allen told "Good Morning America."
Such vision has earned Allen a $500,000 "genius grant" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to continue and expand his efforts.
According to Sophie Brown of Growing Power, a $16 bag filled to the brim with Growing Power's fruits and vegetables, along with those of other local growers, could feed a family of four for a week.
"I wanted to set up a program that was fair farm prices that they're paying for that stuff and can afford it," Allen, the son of a sharecropper, said last week. "They can eat healthy."
The farm uses it's own version of renewable energy. Decaying compost piles in the corners of a greenhouse heat up the structure, turning up the temperature high enough to allow plants to survive during the harsh Wisconsin winter.
The farm also features an innovative three-level growing system with a giant fish tank on the ground floor and two levels of plants above. Water is pumped from the giant fish tank to the top level, where the plants then filter out the waste, and return fresh water to the fish below. It's a fish farm and plant farm all in one.
"You can grow just about anything, anywhere you want," Allen said.
On this farm, nothing goes to waste. Old food is used as animal feed or dumped into the compost pile. And Allen has an army of worms working for him. Millions of the red wiggly worms turn the compost into rich fertilizer and soil. "They are eating all the dead stuff and creating fertilizer, it's a living system" said Allen.
While Allen is already more than willing to tell people how to set up similar farms in their own communities, according to his son Jason, the inner city is the focus of Allen's attention.
"He focuses a lot on urban and inner cities," Jason said. "All you see is fast-food places. To have something like this in an inner city is real important."
That space is generally hard to come by in America's inner cities does not phase Allen; he simply plans to build vertical farm skyscrapers.
"I see food growing on rooftops," he said, lost in his vision of the future. "I see food growing on asphalt with compost."