Urban farm feeds community

By Meghan Keyes

Approaching the diagonal intersection of Division Street and Clybourn Avenue, a pedestrian encounters a chain link fence covered in vines and small blue flowers. The ground behind the fence is higher than the sidewalk, bringing the leafy growth of vegetables closer to eye level.

The site boasts a full greenhouse and rows of lush green foliage, only a block away from the former Cabrini-Green projects with a postcard view of the Chicago skyline.

City Farm is an urban agriculture project between the Cabrini-Green and Gold Coast neighborhoods, a vacant one-acre lot turned farm, started by the Resource Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to environmental education. The farm is mobile, having moved once to its current location and planning to move again to a new lot after the next growing season.

“Our goal is to get the produce in the hands of those who can’t have access to it,” said Andy Rozendaal, program director at City Farm. “Most of our produce goes to restaurants and farmers markets. But if we can do a good job educating people to grow their own products but also to have a farm like this—if the city could open it up to more people … they could make a living out of it.”

The city allows the group to use the lot for free. The soil beneath the farm is contaminated, so it begins with an eight-inch layer of hard clay compacted, like concrete, followed by a layer of compost. The clay prevents the plants from rooting into the contamination and keeps the contamination from leeching upward. The farm currently has approximately 70 different vegetable varieties.

“We’re strategically placing ourself in underdeveloped areas knowing this kind of a space is not an eyesore, it’s not a dilapidated lot—it’s actually being used for a valuable product,” Rozendaal said.

The farm employs four full-time people. The rest of the work is done by volunteers. City farm had more than 500 volunteers this year. Groups, such as schools, also come in to help with the year-round growing. They sell their produce to restaurants, including Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill and at farmers markets. The farm also collects food scraps for composting.

A problem Chicago faces is the food desert—an area without access to fresh and healthy foods. Urban agriculture offers a solution to these communities.

“Chips and soda are not healthy options,” said Kathleen Duffy, founding organizer and board member at the Dill Pickle Co-op. “If that’s all that is in your area, then that’s what you buy and we see the results, all kinds of diseases that … could be addressed with better nutrition.”

The Dill Pickle Co-op is a community-owned grocery store in Logan Square and sources much of its produce from City Farm.

“Everything we get from them, it’s amazingly fresh. It was picked the day before,” Duffy said. “We’re all for the urban agriculture movement. Anything that increases the amount of fresh food available to people is a good thing.”

Beyond food availability benefits, urban agriculture can have a positive effect on the city and its environment.

“There are three general areas: carbon emissions and climate change, community health and building and economic development,” said Dan Fredman, program coordinator for the Office of Sustainability at University of Illinois at Chicago. “Imagine the carbon emissions in shipping food from California to Chicago. In the community, it’s a good thing when you get people outside, working on land … you have a good place for people to come together. With City Farm, the money stays here. It’s also a training opportunity.”

The city informed the group they will move to a different lot after the next growing season, and it hopes to gain more acreage, both for the space for more vegetables and to add more educational opportunities.

“Urban agriculture allows people in the city to get their hands dirty, literally,” Duffy said. “To grow things, to understand the processes that come into play for growing these fruits or vegetables and to enjoy the fruits and vegetables of their labor.”