How Chicago Became a Leader in Urban Agriculture

How Chicago Became a Leader in Urban Agriculture

    How Chicago Became a Leader in Urban Agriculture

From the world’s largest rooftop garden to the country’s biggest indoor aquaponic farm, Chicago is leading the nation in urban food production. Here’s why this is happening.

Emily Scott

July 28, 2016

In the 1830s, when Chicago was becoming established as a city, a new motto was also created: “urbs in horto,” Latin for “city in a garden.”

Chicago became a city in a garden during World War II with the victory garden movement. With 250,000 home gardens and 1,500 community farms, Chicago led the nation as an example of successful urban food production.

Today, the city is still living up to its motto as it continues to be an innovative national leader in urban agriculture.

The Chicago Urban Agriculture Mapping Project has listed that there are over 800 growing sites in Chicago. These sites include school and community gardens, orchards, urban agriculture organizations, protected habitats, and more.

The city also boasts numerous urban agriculture startups, the world’s largest rooftop farm, and the nation’s largest indoor aquaponic farm in nearby Bedford Park.

Urban agriculture’s success in Chicago can be attributed to a number of factors including the amount of vacant space, progressive land zoning policies, an increased demand for locally grown food, and the city’s innovative, entrepreneurial spirit.

But prior to urban agriculture’s recent successes, pursuing agriculture in the city was still an idea that required testing.

In 2001, Harry Rhodes was starting to get involved with Growing Home, an organization built out of founder Les Brown’s vision of providing job training for the homeless through urban farming.

“At the time, people thought he was crazy,” Rhodes said. “We started doing the work in 2002 and found out very quickly that all the skeptics were wrong. Developing urban farms has a lot of benefits for a lot of people, and giving people a chance to grow and to work on farms is very transformational.”

At the time, Advocates for Urban Agriculture, an organization of individuals and other groups promoting urban farming, was also getting started. Only a handful of Chicago urban agriculture organizations, such as Growing Power and City Farm, existed at the time.

Billy Burdett, executive director of Advocates for Urban Agriculture, said he has seen “an exponential growth” in both the number and variety of urban agriculture projects in the city since he became involved with the organization.

In 2011, an amendment to the Chicago Zoning Ordinance was passed that defined community and urban gardens and allowed for community gardens to be up to 25,000 square feet in size.

Open space has been a key to urban agriculture’s success in Chicago. Whether it be rooftops, empty warehouses, or vacant lots, the city’s abundance of space has given entrepreneurs an opportunity to take over and create something green and productive.

“You don’t have (vacant land) in a city like New York or San Francisco,” Rhodes said. “Many people say vacant land is a detriment to community development, but it also can be seen as an asset.”

Vacant land was undoubtedly seen as an asset by Urban Canopy, an urban agriculture organization founded in 2011 that runs multiple growing spaces in the city.

“There’s a lower cost of entry to an industry when you can start growing stuff on land that is already there,” said Alberto Rincón, co-founder of Urban Canopy. “There’s just space to grow and to build.”

However, managing soil in the city can be a problem. Chicago’s soil can often be polluted with high levels of lead and metal from previous industries housed on the land. Rhodes said that in probably 90 percent of cases, farms have to build raised beds or growing areas, and that can result in high startup costs.

But it’s a cost of being in the city, which is why companies such as Gotham Greens and FarmedHere have taken their growing operations indoors and to rooftops to become a part of the wave of vertical farming — a market expected to reach almost $4 billion by 2020.

Being an urban farmer also has its advantages in having access to resources. Rhodes said the city of Chicago has been helpful in providing initial funding to startups, nonprofits, and urban farms. Programs such as the Good Food Business Accelerator have also helped entrepreneurs build their businesses.

“It’s been interesting to see the city slowly come around, and today they are fully in favor of urban agriculture,” Rhodes said.

Burdett said he attributes a lot of Chicago’s success to the community that has grown around urban agriculture and the increased demand for locally grown food.

“There’s been this broad awakening . . . where people are just really interested in supporting local and sustainable food production, and so there’s a pretty big demand out there,” Burdett said. “I don’t think that we have really even gotten close to meeting that demand. I think there’s a lot more growth to be done in the urban agriculture community.”

Meeting these demands bring its own set of challenges, but those in the community say they believe Chicago’s innovative spirit can help them get there.

Rincón said he is especially excited to see how engineers can make urban agriculture more tech-focused. Possible applications could include mobile apps providing services from urban farms — think Uber for composting — and using precision agriculture technology on smaller, urban farms.

But in order for companies to thrive, Rincón said urban agriculture needs to have support from pre-existing companies — and startups need to make sure they’ve built an argument that their idea is worth investment.

Creating sustainable business models will also be critical — Rhodes said this is “key for the growth of the industry” of urban agriculture and making Chicago a national leader for urban agriculture.

“I think (Chicago is) one of the leaders,” Rhodes said. “I’ve visited a lot of cities and I haven’t seen any that have more going on than Chicago.”

Burdett said he hopes that through the urban agriculture movement, the city can emulate its roots in the success of the victory garden movement.

“Our goal is to increase production so that we can get closer to the point where Chicago and other cities across the countries were, at the peak of the victory garden movement during World War II especially — 40 % of the nation’s produce was coming from these mostly small victory gardens,” he said. “We think there’s a huge amount of potential to meet the majority of this city’s produce needs.”

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