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Urban agriculture blooming

Wed, Aug 22, 2012

This “before” photo shows the plot on Hermitage Street in Englewood before it became a community garden. Photo: Openlands

Urban agriculture is taking hold in Englewood, nearly a year after a new Chicago City Council ordinance created structure for both commercial farms and smaller, privately run community gardens.

Growing Home Inc. is a window into how the ordinance has affected both forms of urban agriculture. Until the ordinance, Growing Home had to operate its Chicago properties under the title of “technical institute,” said Harry Rhodes, executive director, in a telephone interview. The decade-old non-profit social enterprise focuses on providing on-the-job training to previously incarcerated, homeless and other challenged individuals through employment in small-scale organic farming.

The ordinance, passed last September 8, eased overall costs for urban production farms in terms of landscaping, and allowed cheaper fencing and fewer parking spaces, Rhodes said.

The ordinance is the second component of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plans toward ending “food deserts,” where fresh produce is harder to find than fast food, resulting in higher risk of diet-related issues like heart disease and diabetes, Policy Director Mike Simmons told StreetWise last year. Emanuel’s first priority is attracting more grocery stores to food deserts. In the meantime, “we want to empower people to grow their own food.” Simmons said.

In addition, Rhodes said, research shows that adding green space to communities serves to lower violence. “Anytime you can take a vacant lot and turn it into productive space, especially with growing plants, it changes the atmosphere of the community.”

The idea for making Englewood an “urban agriculture district” comes also from LISC Chicago and its Teamwork Englewood component, which led planning for the community’s Quality of Life plan in 2005. Growing Home is a partner and so is Openlands.

“The City has suggested Englewood as a potential center for a lot more urban agriculture because there’s so much vacant space there,” said Glenda Daniel, community greening director for Openlands. “Englewood was once a manufacturing and railroad center and the argument is that many places will never be as dense as they once were.”

More commercial urban farms on the vacant land would attract more people and in turn more housing and business until the land can be developed.

Rhodes said the Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development has identified as many as 300 city-owned sites that could become urban production farms, in line with the commercial portion of the ordinance. Right now, Growing Home runs the only two such properties.

Now in its 10th year, Growing Homes operates four farms. Its first farm was in Downstate Marseilles, which raises produce for subscribers to Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSAs). It also operates a market garden at SuCasa in Back of the Yards. In 2007 it opened its year-round organic farm — still the only certified organic farm in Chicago — at 5814 S. Wood St. in Englewood. This farm also sells to Green City Market and its own on-site farm stand for the public.

This “after” photo of the Hermitage Street Garden shows what $25 for seeds and raised beds can do for productive community spirit. Photo: Openlands

Just around the corner on Honore Street, between 58th and 59th, Growing Home is managing the first urban farm under the new Chicago City Council ordinance. The new farm is eight-tenths of an acre, in a former residential zone divided by an alley and an abandoned railroad overpass.

The object of the Honore Street farm will be to make urban agriculture sustainable, exclusive of grants, Rhodes said. Right now, 13 to 15 percent of Growing Home’s income comes from its produce, while grants supply the remainder.

Planting began on Honore Street in June in a 100-feet by 30-feet hoop house: cucumbers, Malabar spinach, basil, tomatoes, assorted greens and harvested for the first time in early July, Rhodes said. Planting for fall harvest will begin soon.

The hoop house will operate year round; spinach is the main crop over the winter, along with some lettuce and carrots. Rhodes said. An identical hoop house will be constructed this fall alongside it. Once the entire site is up and running, he expects triple the 13,000 pounds grown in 2011 at Su Casa and Wood Street.

The extra capacity could also mean five more transitional jobs at Growing Home, where students learn not only urban agriculture methods but marketing, retail sales, landscaping and customer service. Last year, there were 35 transitional jobs and this year there were 40, with 45 expected next year, Rhodes said.
Going into the 2012 farming season, Growing Home had 127 inquiries for 40 intern positions annually. The program is divided into two 14-week programs with roughly 20 interns each during the growing season. The Wood Street farm is used for training and the students rotate to the other farms. During the winter, the social enterprise concentrates on job development and recruiting.

The Honore Street site is preserved for Growing Home and Englewood by NeighborSpace, a non-profit land trust supported in part by a partnership of the City of Chicago, Chicago Park District and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, which owns the land. NeighborSpace acquires sites as public-private land trusts, to be used by community groups as gardens and parks. This is its 79th community open space in the city, but its first urban farm.

“With an array of benefits from job training and food security to neighborhood beautification and exercise, urban farming is taking its place as a permanent part of the Chicago landscape,” NeighborSpace Board President Alicia Berg said in prepared material dur-ing the farm’s open house last October. “The Honore Street farm is an example of how with sensible public-private partnerships, a great program like Growing Home can blossom.”

Teamwork Englewood’s Quality of Life plan includes not just urban agriculture and training facilities but food-related businesses, Rhodes said. “It could be produce markets, food carts, small restaurants, cafes, — anything related to improving food access to the community.” Since Growing Home helped establish the Greater Englewood Urban Agriculture Task Force in 2010, there’s new community gardens and the new Kusanya Café, an espresso bar, at 69th and Morgan.

“The ultimate goal is to turn a food desert into a food destination,” Rhodes said. “People are coming, there’s more and more people who come to visit our sites as well as the community gardens every year. Change isn’t something that happens overnight but it is definitely happening.”

One sign of this change, Rhodes said, is that sales at their farm stand have tripled this year over last, thanks to the work of Sonya Harper, Growing Home’s community outreach coordinator. Besides the farm stand, Harper runs “Wednesdays at Wood Street.”

This event includes produce sales from the farm stand, tours of the farms, workshops and cooking demos. Twice yearly, Harper coordinates open houses in conjunction with surrounding organizations to teach the community about urban agriculture. The most recent event, held in June, was a workshop on healthy eating with chef Josephine McEntee of Emma’s Kitchen. McEntee showed visitors various recipes on how to pair foods for taste and to cook vegetables just right so they wouldn’t lose their nutrients.

Growing Home also received positive feedback on “Gardening for Beauty,” a workshop where attendees used household items and different herbs to make shampoos, lotions and other beauty products. At the end of the open house, they were handed a free basket of produce. Last April Growing Home invited the Violence Interrupters, members of Ceasefire Englewood, an organization devoted to teaching people to mediate conflicts and stopping violence in their own community.

A journalism graduate of the University of Missouri who worked in television and radio – NBC, FOX and CBS affiliates across the Midwest – Harper is originally from Englewood. She has a deep investment in the community and it shows through her work. Her aim is not just to encourage residents to grow more produce to feed themselves, but to use the gardens and farms as a means to unite them more as a community.

“One of the biggest problems in this community is a lack of communication about positive community issues,” she said. “There’s no community center for anyone to visit.” People stay indoors minding their own business, so nobody is aware of what goes on within the neighborhood, she said. Local gardens are a way of getting people outside and into each other’s lives.

Growing Home’s Wood Street farm, in operation since 2007, is an example of the commercial portion of the new city ordinance. Photo: Growing Home

A block east of Wood Street and two blocks north, Growing Home owns land in the 5600 block of South Hermitage. Now the social enterprise leases it to the Hermitage Street Community Garden, where individuals pay $25 for access to an eight-feet by eight-feet raised bed plot, as well as seeds and soil. Cordia Pugh, volunteer community coordinator of the garden, said subscribers may cultivate anything they want, including cabbage, collards, cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, flowers, string beans, mustard, turnip, greens and peppers. Each of the 38 plots can yield enough to feed a family of four for an entire year. Most of the produce is grown for owner consumption.

Pugh says public support is strong, what she estimates as 85 percent of the community and others from nearby Hyde Park. Recently, garden members held a workshop with Openlands about cultivating small plots, and planning what to grow.

Englewood was one of at least six neighborhoods in which Openlands did planning with churches, block clubs and individuals to preserve undeveloped land permanently.

“It helps property values to have a nice garden,” Daniel said. “It makes the street safer because there are eyes and ears on the street.”

Just as Growing Home provided input into the urban production farms part of the city ordinance, Openlands advised on the more recreational community gardens portion of the new city code.

The organization also helps individuals raise money for soil and plants and it teaches a six-week course on how to form a group and assign tasks. The class meets at the Garfield Park Conservatory except for a final session on construction – raised beds, benches, pergolas – that is held at Dawson Technical Institute, a subsidiary of Kennedy King College in Englewood.

“That is Openlands’s niche on urban agriculture, not the big gardens that sell to restaurants but where people grow their own food that they share with each other,” Daniel said. “They might have a little farm stand in the fall just to sell to neighbors,” a provision that Openlands urged the city to allow. The organization has facilitated roughly 15 community gardens, some for food, others for flowers, she said.
Sonya Harper and her family, for example, garden privately through Openlands, Daniel said. So does Ernie Reynolds, 80, who lives at the Bethel Terrace senior center on 63rd Street. Openlands helped him obtain soil and lumber for raised beds. He and other seniors may have planted vegetables in this spring but been thwarted by the drought. They might plant lettuce for fall, she said.

Gardens open to the public bring many benefits, according to Bea Jasper of the Greater Englewood Gardening Association, which was started by Openlands and Growing Home. “People are developing gardens to beautify the community, to lower the idea that this is a blighted area,” she said.

Holding meetings on every second Saturday of the month, the Greater Englewood Gardening Association teaches how to build raised beds, how to do flower arrangements and how to cultivate vegetables. Its meetings attract up to 30 people at a time, Jasper said. The association provided the manpower for the Bethel Gardens; members set up raised beds and spread wood chips.

“Gardens are there to give people on our block a sense of pride,” Jasper added. “Gardening especially helps the youth, giving young people something to do instead of standing around. Gardening will teach them a sense of responsibility. It has a way of lowering stress and bringing up pride for the community.”

Suzanne Hanney, StreetWise Editor-In-Chief & Ryan Herzog, StreetWise Editorial Intern

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Urban agriculture blooming

  1. […] was recently featured in an issue of Streetwise magazine focused on urban agriculture. The article, Urban agriculture blooming, highlights Growing Home’s Englewood urban farms and the collaborative work happening around […]

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