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.
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!
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.
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!