Five Urban Farming Projects In Chicago To Watch In 2017
Five Urban Farming Projects In Chicago To Watch In 2017
Come spring, a new urban farm is expected to take root in Lawndale with a groundbreaking for a $3.5 million year-round facility.
The Farm on Ogden, as it will be called, is a partnership between Lawndale Christian Health Center and Windy City Harvest, Chicago Botanic Garden's urban farming program that grows more than 100,000 pounds of produce a year in addition to training low-income people of color how to farm.
Like a tomato plant bursting from a pothole, Chicago's urban farming scene is a tiny hope-filled industry in a tough city, steadily growing as a source of jobs, economic development and food in some of the poorest neighborhoods on the South and West sides. That growth will continue with an assortment of new projects and expansions in 2017.
The Lawndale neighborhood farm, at 3555 W. Ogden Ave., will provide a needed boost to Windy City Harvest, allowing it to double its training capacity and increase overall production, said Angela Mason, associate vice president of the urban farming program.
"This will be a really warm and welcoming space when we're through," Mason said, standing in the cavernous vacant building that will be transformed into an indoor farm and community center.
There's still another $395,000 left to raise, but the plan is to continue fundraising while building the project, Mason said.
The roughly 30,000-square-foot facility will house a 50,000-gallon aquaponic system, a greenhouse, cold storage area and — facing West Ogden — a "healthy corner store," Mason said. It also will feature a commercial kitchen for making "value-added" products like salsa and for hosting cooking classes.
The health center will own the facility; Windy City will be the tenant. Rent will be paid in the form of produce for the fledgling VeggieRx program, in which health care providers "prescribe" boxes of produce for people with chronic health conditions, Mason said.
Produce grown at Windy City's 13 other sites also will be aggregated at and distributed from The Farm on Ogden. Currently, about half of the program's produce is sold to restaurants through a produce wholesaler — an important source of revenue that helps support services that generate less money. The rest of the produce is sold at a lower price in low-income communities.
Part of the goal, Mason said, is to make the program more self-sufficient by eventually increasing the earned revenue into a 50-50 split with raised revenue. Once the Lawndale facility is operational, Windy City will be able to grow more produce make more money, and rely less on grants.
But equally important to Windy City, the indoor farm will broaden the program's impact. Currently, the initiative trains about 200 people per year — a mix of community college students, at-risk youth and nonviolent criminal offenders in separate programs. After the Lawndale farm is built, that number will more than double.
Rosario Maldonado manages and coordinates sales for Windy City in addition to farming her own quarter-acre plot of land as part of Windy City's incubator program. The Farm on Ogden will help provide more income for her and other farmers in the winter because they'll be able to make products like salsas, jellies and teas in the commercial kitchen, she said.
"We need to become more self-sustainable as a city, so we need to find ways to do more year-round production all around," Maldonado said.
Windy City Harvest isn't the only farm in town. Here are other urban ag projects happening in 2017.
City of Chicago
The city is jumping into the urban farming game, aided by a $1 million federal grant, one of 45 projects awarded a total of $26.6 million this year through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's annual Conservation Innovation Grants.
Through its "Growing for Chicago" initiative, the city plans to promote and coordinate urban farming efforts, provide microgrants and training through partnerships with existing nonprofits, and prepare vacant land in the Englewood neighborhood for farming, said Chris Wheat, chief sustainability officer for Chicago.
The first order of business will hiring the city's first full-time urban agriculture coordinator, who will serve as a liaison of sorts between city departments and the various nonprofits and businesses doing the farming, Wheat said. One of the goals is to streamline the bureaucratic process for those wishing to farm to obtain the necessary permits, he said.
The city is also in the process of acquiring and remediating land near the long-awaited Englewood Line rail trail, and will eventually coordinate with public trusts and nonprofits to place farmers on the land, Wheat said.
"Urban farming in Chicago in 10 years looks to be an important element of economic development and important in terms of how communities come together," Wheat said.
Growing Home, an Englewood-based urban farm and job training nonprofit, has its own expansion plans. Currently, Growing Home grows about 30,000 pounds of produce on about 1 acre.
Within the next five years, the plan is to expand the farming operations onto two nearby parcels of donated land, more than doubling the operation, said Executive Director Harry Rhodes.
Accomplishing that will take more money. Growing Home is conducting a feasibility study, which could lead to a fundraising campaign in the next couple of years, Rhodes said.
Job training is the top priority of Growing Home. This year, 52 people enrolled in Growing Home's 14-week work training program and most of them later secured full-time jobs, Rhodes said. After the planned expansion, Growing Home's goal would be to triple that impact by training between 150 and 200 people a year.
"You hear about the shootings," Rhodes said. "You don't hear enough about the good things happening in Englewood."
Alex Poltorak is building his own urban farming dream in Englewood.
This year, Urban Canopy grew about 10,000 pounds of produce on about 1.25 acres of farmland established on top of a parking lot in Englewood, as well as microgreens inside a former meatpacking plant in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.
Unlike both Windy City Harvest and Growing Home, Urban Canopy is a for-profit company but measures success in terms of jobs provided and environmental impact — not just its bottom line, said Poltorak, its founder, who declined to discuss specific revenue and profit figures.
In the spring, Urban Canopy received a $12,000 grant from the Frontera Farmer Foundation and used the money to expand the farm, Poltorak said.
The plan for the year ahead is to build the farm out more, hire more people and continue to prove the business model, Poltorak said.
Advocates for Urban Agriculture
Not all farming involves digging in the dirt. Billy Burdett, executive director of Advocates for Urban Agriculture, is trying to cultivate a garden of data that will help Chicago's urban farming movement coalesce.
In a partnership with NeighborSpace and DePaul University, Burdett's organization is building an interactive online map of all the urban farms in the city, the Chicago Urban Agriculture Mapping Project.
Currently, the map shows 66 urban farms in Chicago — a definition that includes nonprofits and commercial enterprises alike — up from 50 when the mapping project launched in March of last year.
But Burdett acknowledged the map needs some updating. At least one farm on the map is no longer in business.
In a few months, Burdett's group will hire some college students to update the data, he said.
In time, the mapping project also will include data such as the number of people employed and the amount of produce grown at each farm, he said. The point is to become a more organized and formalized industry in Chicago, which will help with advocacy efforts.
"We want to make sure this is as up-to-date as possible and we're really excited to expand the information that it covers," he said.