A Diverse Prairie Oasis

What do wasps, onions, and coyotes all have in common? In the case of the Jane Addams Hull House Heirloom Farm, they are the heros of a fascinating urban agriculture tale.

The story begins in the fall of 2008, when farmer Ryan Beck and the Jane Addams Hull House Museum staff watched the bobcat break ground on what they hoped would become an heirloom farm. Located on the UIC campus just west of the Chicago Loop, the soil contained low levels of arsenic and other metals – a common occurrence in dense urban areas. But the nutrients were there, so in lieu of spending $15,000 on imported top soil, Ryan decided to use what he had. “I felt that in order to teach people about urban farming, I wanted to be able to speak from experience,” he said. And less than four years later, he (and the local critters and crops that accompanied him) have successfully remediated the soil into a diverse prairie oasis.

The Heirloom Farm is less than a mile away from the Sears Tower, but the soil has become fertile after four years of remediation.

Farmer Ryan’s philosophy is what has allowed this diversity to flourish and support an abundance of crops, all grown without any herbicides or pesticides. Ryan believes that the local biology works naturally to create homeostasis. Despite being surrounded by concrete and buildings, the native ecology has returned to do just that. The diversity is there, “it’s just a matter of fostering it,” says Ryan. Case in point: Ryan used to pick all the hornworms – giant caterpillars that can chow through a tomato in two weeks – off the plants by hand. But the native mint and colorful prairie flowers he planted attract wasps, which Ryan calls a “phenomenal biological control.” They inject their larvae into the hornworms, and soon enough the baby bees start to hatch and parasitically take care of those nasty hornworms!

Ryan harvests a garlic plant.

With this idea of faith in competition to bring balance, Ryan plants alliums (onions, garlic, leeks, etc.) as companion plants with strawberries as natural antiseptics to fight off bacteria. And how to take care of the rabbits that like to munch on the lettuce? None other than coyotes, in the middle of the concrete jungle! Just as Jane Addams believed that a pluralistic society is a healthy one, the Hull House Farm mirrors this idea.

A lot of the techniques Ryan uses are part of a growing global urban agriculture movement, with a growing knowledge database, which can be used to explain many of Ryan’s successes. How does the farm generate such biodiversity? This idea is not unique to the Hull House – in a 2005 case study done by the Journal of Applied Ecology, 84% of farms “showed higher species richness in organic agriculture systems.” So, the fact that Ryan’s farm is organic actually allows it to remain organic – biodiversity decreases the need for pesticides. This self-perpetuating cycle is sure to sustain the heirloom farm for years to come.

As if biodiversity wasn’t enough – the legacy of Jane Addams also lives on with the farm’s commitment to food security needs in the community. The Hull House gives much of its produce to a “mobile produce market” called Fresh Moves, an organization that uses converted CTA buses to bring fresh fruits and veggies to low-income neighborhoods in Chicago. They also use their vegetables in a weekly soup program, Re-Thinking Soup, where a chefs such as Urban Belly‘s Bill Kim concoct a soup to feed the public and provide grounds to discuss a relevant social justice issue.

Collards, garlic, and kale are just a few of the types of produce grown here.

So what to take from all this? Whether you need to fight pests in your own urban garden, or you want to participate in an urban agricultural movement that’s sweeping the globe from Texas to Japan, we can all learn from Ryan and his Heirloom Farm. Finding balance in diversity is no small feat. But if Jane Addams did it at the Hull House 100 years ago, and Ryan is doing it now in her legacy, there’s no reason we all can’t jump on the bandwagon.

Just watch out for the coyotes!



Norton’s Family Farm

Join me for a tour of Norton’s Family Farm! Just visited this Saturday. So fresh!

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Growing more than just food at Growing Home

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What can you buy with a dollar? An apple, a small fry from McDonald’s, 4 gumballs, a Coke, or… a plot of land fit to bloom into a revolutionary urban farm on Chicago’s South Side. Yep, it’s true. Six years ago, the City of Chicago sold the 2/3 acre plot in Englewood to Growing Home for one measly buck. And now, not only has the land transformed into a full-scale organic farm, but it has helped transform the neighborhood as well. Their mission is to utilize organic agriculture as a vehicle for job training, employment, and community development. In other words, they are uplifting Chicago’s neighborhoods, one vegetable at a time. All of this is made possible with the hard work of interns seeking transitional employment – many of whom had troubles finding a job, sometimes due to former incarceration, a history of homelessness
or substance abuse, or even simply a lack of education.

You might be thinking… This will never work. How will the harvest ever get picked? Those people are not qualified to cultivate my food. Well, consider this: in 2010, Growing Home’s Wood St. Urban Farm (the one I visited) grew and sold over 11,000 pounds of organic produce and brought in over $45,000 as income for the interns! They sell CSA Shares to community members, have a weekly market on Wood St., market their goods at Green City Market, and even sell their goods to Chicago restaurants like Big Bowl. If that’s enough to change your mind about the effectiveness of the program, you can stop reading now. But you probably shouldn’t, because there are so many other things that Growing Home is doing to help the community, it’s mind-boggling.

Not only does the full time staff at Growing Home educate the interns about horticulture, soil preparation, food systems, and nutrition, but they also teach them ways to reintroduce themselves into the workforce with classes on job readiness, financial literacy, and personal narrative writing. And there is a demand for more, as word spreads like Kudzu vines! In addition to the two other urban farms that Growing Home runs, they just acquired yet another across the street, called Honore Street Farm. NeighborSpace, a land conservation group respected within the city bureaucracy, is helping them transform the land into the full-fledged farm the the Wood St. location has become. Speaking of connections with the City, executive director Harry Rhodes recently met with new mayor Rahm Emanuel.

So with the links they have made with influential Chicago groups, it looks as if Growing Home is well on their way to accomplishing their ultimate goal: to make enough money off of their social enterprises to be able to give food away to the community members (which they already do) and be financially sustainable. But how are they getting their name heard? Like so many budding businesses these days, social media has helped Growing Home in the publicity aspect. But it’s also word of mouth. “People just know about us,” said my tour guide. When I asked her if she thought Growing Home was a good model for other cities, she agreed. And how could she not? There is no reason that other initiatives can’t take a lesson from the hard work and dedication of the place. Although financial victory for those with barriers to employment may be harder to grow than the little radishes on the plot, numbers don’t lie. Growing Home is a success from which we can all learn, no matter where we live.

Cheers to growth and harmony,


Workers share joys of Worker’s Share

“You know, you gotta get back to nature — or at least I do!” Mary, kneeling in the dirt next to a row of spinach, held up a freshly uprooted weed with pride. “I love coming here and getting my hands dirty,” she said. Mary, a 2nd-year worker at Peasants’ Plot, a farm in Manteno, IL, described her experience as a participant in the farm’s worker’s share program. Peasants’ Plot itself is a 20-acre farm owned by Julia and Todd McDonald, two (former) urbanites who launched their agriculture career in 2007 with the mission of bringing city folk like themselves closer to the food they eat.

Since almost blindly jumping into the organic-sustainable-ethical farm world five years ago, these ‘Peasants’ have surely come a long way. They now sell to several markets in Illinois and have a large CSA shareholder-ship. But it wasn’t always that way. Farmers Julia and Todd, city folk who left the urban sprawl for farm life in 2007, started the program when they realized it would be financially unfeasible to pay enough workers to harvest all the crops. Economically speaking, they simply wouldn’t be able to do it without the 20 Workers Share employees who make up an essential facet of the farm. So what better way to save a few bucks — besides using an old washing machine as a salad spinner — than to trade yummy crops for labor?

Todd washing spinach in a makeshift salad spinner – really got my head spinning!

It took a lot of guts (as well as a little naivety, according to Julia) for them to abandon their lives and start farming afresh, especially when they didn’t have all the resources in the world. For those urbanites who lack those guts, myself included, Workers Share would allow us to channel our inner Buddha and take a middle path – work a bit on a farm to earn good food, and continue our lives as usual in the concrete jungle.

Those who show a real commitment to farming at the Plot can apply, and in no time they will become an irreplaceable part of the farm staff, in exchange for a weekly share of the farm’s produce. Workers get to take an active role in their food blooming from seed to spinach leaf. And it’s something any of us can do, no matter where we live or how much money we have – we really have no excuse not to eat locally when the keywords “workers share csa farm” yield about 2,640,000 results on google. Whether you just want to involve yourself in the production of your nourishment, or you’re too strapped for cash to afford a CSA box, Workers Share seems to be the perfect middle ground.

Mary picks spinach.

Mary, one of the participants in Workers Share at Peasants’ Plot, agrees with me. I got the chance to talk to her when I visited the farm on their volunteer-worker day this Saturday. Mary lives in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood and works a desk job during the week. But every other weekend during the summer she morphs into a true farmer. When I asked her if she’d ever start her own farm, though, she seemed alarmed at the idea! Like many of us, it seems to be a long-term goal of hers (she does have a little earth box in her yard!), but there’s so much more to farming than just picking spinach. Meredith, an intern at the Plot, agreed with Mary. “Dude, it’s a lot of work,” she said. “You’d have to be superman! Or Todd.”

But by trading work for a weekly share of fresh, organically grown vegetables, the everyday person can let Todd and Julia do the superman farming work. But they can still dig in to what it’s like to live off the earth upon which we live! So it has turned out to be a win-win situation, and is a perfect a middle ground between the detachment of grocery stores and the endeavor of running your own farm. Julia and Todd get an extra hand with the never-ending work of running their farm, and workers get the benefits of fresh, healthy, local food that they helped pick themselves. Surrounded by dedicated workers and CSA share-holders alike on volunteer day, I witnessed an intense commitment to food, down to every single spinach leaf picked. I even knelt down to pick a few of my own, feeling and hearing the snap of the stem as I broke it off. It was then that I really understood how workers share share allows people to their hands dirty in an immensely gratifying way.

So dirty up your hands a bit this weekend in a garden or on a farm. It might just make your heart a little more pure.

Urban Withdrawal? Not at Kinnikinnick.

Quit your job, gather up your belongings, say goodbye to the city, and hello to the… dilapidated farmhouse? This may not sound like the most appetizing recipe, but ask David and Susan Cleverdonof Kinnikinnick Farm, and he’ll give you a different taste on things. David is an immensely dedicated farmer in every sense of the word, yet his background would lead you to believe otherwise. About the farmer part, that is. Immense dedication has been a trend throughout David’s entire story.

He started out in a field some might consider the antithesis to farming: politics. During the heart of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi in 1964, he began as a volunteer political organizer, helping with voter registration drives and picking up tactics from Civil Rights groups like SNCC and CORE. Later, he worked on campaigns for Congressman Abner Mikva on the south side of Chicago, and . Although he was moving up the political ladder, he left politics in the 70’s for a job at the Chicago Board of Trade, which marked the inception of his second career in finance. This led him to the position of Director of the Illinois Link Deposit Program for Economic Development. Funny enough, Link now has a program that allows users to spend their Link benefits at Illinois farmers markets, but this connection was probably not that the forefront of David’s mind at the time. Now, however, it would be. Because his third and current career is none other than organic farming – the third time’s the charm, it seems!

But what in the world prompted David and his wife to leave their comfortable city lives and take on the immense challenge of organic farming, you might ask? It didn’t happen all at once. But the shift was magnanimous. The impetus was a market garden in the city that was David and Susan’s pride and joy.  Then they began to dream about farming. They “sort of Wendell Berry-meets-Martha Stewart kinds of dreams,” says David, and these dreams manifested themselves in the purchase of a run-down, neglected, 170 acre “disaster” of a farm in Caledonia, IL, just north of Rockford. After five years of seemingly endless restoration, they finally arrived at a point from which they could begin the actual farming.

Being what they call “transplanted Chicagoans” gave David and Susan the business sense to really craft a marketable vision for the farm. But a vision isn’t everything, they discovered after their “zero year” in 1993, a year during which the farm did not produce any marketable crops. According to David, this zero year was essential to the development of the farm, teaching them “to work deliberately and smartly and to develop systems, procedures, protocols, and calendars.” When starting from scratch, a keen business sense definitely isn’t enough to carry on a fully functioning farm. But every year, David learns more. In fact, he learns enough to prove the skeptics wrong. Everyone from his city friends who thought they were crazy to liquidate his entire life’s worth and move to a farm, to the people on neighboring farms who called them “stupid city folks.” Although David admits their “go-for-broke” decision to move was quite rash, there’s no denying that their fearlessness in making mistakes and their motivation in learning them has made Kinnickinnick the successful farm that it is. And now, David serves on the Board of Directors of the Chicago Green City Market, The Frontera Farmer Foundation, the Angelic Organics Learning Center, the Midwest Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training, and the Stateline Farm Beginnings Program. He is a member of the Chefs Collaborative, Indiana Certified Organic, and the Slow Food Movement. Quite a resume for someone who just took up farming less than two decades ago!

So there you go! All it takes is a little guts and some dedication, and pretty soon you’ll be selling fresh organic produce to some of Chicago’s best restaurants and farmers markets. So why don’t we all do it? Well firstly, I can’t imagine myself as a farm girl (concrete is a dear friend of mine, admittedly). But I’ve certainly had points in my life where I am so fed up with my lack of control about what I consume that packing up, moving to the middle of nowhere, and simply living off the land seems like the only viable option if I want to truly live sustainably. And that’s what David and Susan did, but they didn’t stop there. Instead of pulling a Thoreau and isolating themselves in an Illinoisan version of Walden, they became so intertwined in the food world that they are now “indispensable” to the Midwestern food world.

Despite my previous doubts, urban to rural migration is not an entirely unique to David’s family – especially nowadays as the cost of living in a city is steadily rising. Want proof? Just ask the good ol’ blogosphere. The more people write about it, the more people do it. MizGreenJeans blogs about her transition from city to farm life, calling it “an interesting road, morphing from suburban housewife to very rural farmwife.” Some people even make a living off blogging about the transition – Sherry from City Chic on a Farm is a great example of that. And for Erin, the writer behind fromcitytofarm.com, it all started with a dream, just as it did with David and Susan. Erin writes that “thanks to a health scare, we started paying more attention to stress and pollution,” which eventually prompted them to make the move from New York City to rural New Jersey farm life. I can’t help but wonder if, just as the industrial revolution sparked urbanization over a century ago, the information revolution is catalyzing ruralization today. Instead of heading for the city to take up factory jobs, people have access to a plethora of information about how to live healthy and sustainable lives. And this information is increasingly inducing them to start their own lives as farmers.

Maybe some day I’ll be able to muster up the courage to make the transition myself. I certainly wouldn’t be the first one. But for now, I’ll stick with planning a weekend retreat to Kinnikinnick Farm. When I’m there, perhaps I’ll be able to pick up a few more pointers from David about beating the urban withdrawal – or, rather, about basking in it.

Stay Above the Weather,


Meet another Food Warrior!

After interviewing my fellow food warrior, Michele Moses, I discovered we have much more in common than just our name. First off, we live within 20 minutes of each other! We are both 19, spend our days studying away in college, come from an urban city (she’s from NYC, I’m from here in Chicago)… yet somehow we are both passionate about getting to know the food we eat on an up-close and personal level. Or as Michele puts it, she wants to become “closer to the source,” and bring others there with her.

Michele’s interest in food transparency was sparked when, in college, she experienced the helplessness of cafeteria eating. I can definitely relate – the only food source I’ve ever known in a cafeteria is a big metal container! However, Michele cites this helplessness as one of the things that motivates her to find out more about her food.

Living in a city and being constrained to a college cafeteria doesn’t stop Michele from striving to attain this goal. Over the past month she got involved in a community garden on Northwestern’s campus in Evanston (where she studies journalism), and that experience “really working in the dirt” made her realize that even farmers markets are distanced from the actual work and growth involved in producing the food we eat. She mentioned the Union Square Green Market in the heart of New York City as “a strange juxtaposition.” I know what she meant, being from Chicago – like she said, seeing the freshly grown food in the middle of a bustling city is such a beautiful thing, but it’s sometimes so funny to look at! In that way, even farmers markets can feel distanced, which is why Michele recognizes the amount of work it will take to really reach the source and get close to it.

I think Michele’s journalism experience and intense drive to get her voice heard are the perfect combination in approaching the challenge of food transparency. Just last week she co-founded a literary magazine at Northwestern called Margin Magazine, envisioning a place for students to write in a personal, literary, reflective style – rather than just campus news. She was also on the board of an organization called Challah for Hunger, where students would bake challah bread (yum!) and donate the proceeds to people suffering in Darfur. Just those examples alone made it clear to me that Michele will go far in bringing food transparency to the table, and not just for fellow cafeteria-goers. As the internship goes on and she learns more about our food industry, Michele (in conjunction with Real Time Farms) hopes to become a good resource for all types of people, to ensure that “eating ethically and sustainably can be effective for everyone.”

I can’t wait to meet her in person!

Hello world!

Here goes my first lil’ blog post… I guess I’ll just tell you what I’ve been doing lately.

I just spent the last 3 hours on realtimefarms.com… Sorry, not sorry! I’m so excited to be interning with them this summer. If you haven’t heard about them, check ’em out! It’s a website whose mission is to document all the farms, artisans, and farmers markets in THE ENTIRE U.S. Yep. And I’m gonna help them do that… Hence the name “FOOD WARRIOR” – which for to me for some reason evokes an image of a stealthy ninja on a mission. As my fellow warrior Michele put it today as I interviewed her, “The Michel(l)es take on the farms of the midwest!” But whatever the title means for you, just remember it’s all in the name of good-for-you, good-for-the-environment, transparent food (not this kind of transparency, of course, but you already knew that – just me being cheeky).

More to come later on what exactly I’ll be doing as a food warrior, as well as the interview of Michele. But for now just keep yourselves (you thousands and millions of people reading this) busy with the Real Time Farms website. Like I said… it can really be a black hole. In a good way, of course. Who doesn’t like black holes? They are, in fact, radiant… and if I’m gonna be sucked into any black hole, I’d definitely select RTF as my vortex of choice.

Au revoir!

p.s. Can’t wait for the first Federal Plaza farmers market of the year tomorrow!