Farming in the Windy City

From rooftops to abandoned lots, urban gardening in Chicago is thriving.
Written by Abigail Bobrow
Photographs by Katie Miller

At the corner of Dearborn and South Federal in Bronzeville, the ground is bursting with carrots, onions, tomatoes, basil, chard, and sweet potatoes.

This would have been an impossible situation just twelve years ago when these two acres were covered with the buildings that made up the Robert Taylor Homes — one of the largest public-housing developments in the country at the time.

Now this land is Legends South Farm, part of Windy City Harvest, an urban farm program administered through the Chicago Botanic Garden that educates, employs, and nourishes communities citywide.

Windy City Harvest has six farms throughout Chicago and works with a wide variety of Chicago residents, from adults changing careers to college-bound students to people with criminal backgrounds. Everyone learns the basics of farming, and some of those who go through the apprenticeship program then lease incubator plots at the Legends farm to test out business ideas. Since 2015, those incubator plots have brought in more than $280,000 in sales, generated 100,000 pounds of produce, and distributed 1,225 WIC boxes to Chicago communities.

A Legends South Farm Harvest Corps program participant gathers freshly picked carrots.

That’s just one example at one of Windy City Harvest’s larger-scale production farms. Across the city, on rooftops, in backyards, parking lots, and warehouses, Chicago residents are finding ways to support urban agriculture, although land ownership and access are a big hurdle for all beginning farmers. This is why agriculture projects in urban areas are often affiliated with nonprofit agencies, like Windy City Harvest, that can get access to land easier or may own it already.

“This concept of using space to serve underserved, food-insecure individuals in urban areas is not new,” says Zack Grant, University of Illinois Extension’s Cook County Local Food Systems and Small Farms educator who offers technical assistance and training to Windy City Harvest. “It seems like it’s some new, trendy thing that we’re doing, but it’s really something that’s been going on for generations.”

The new demonstration and research farm in Matteson is used for the Master Urban Farmer Training Program headed by Zack Grant. In addition to offering training to students, faculty use it as a research site for applied basic science to address questions surrounding urban agriculture.

During World War II, Chicago led the nation in food production from “victory gardens,” with fifteen-hundred community gardens as well as a quarter of a million home gardens. All told, the gardens used over one thousand acres of Chicago land for food production.

Yet, the victory gardens themselves served a purpose beyond providing relief to food suppliers during wartime. The plots were recognized as a way to boost morale on the home front.

Now, seventy-four years later, there are 871 urban agriculture and community gardens located throughout Cook County, according to the Chicago Urban Agriculture Mapping Project. Often, their missions — like the victory gardens — are about more than just growing food.

Fifteen to twenty percent of all agriculture worldwide is grown in metropolitan regions, according to Worldwatch Institute. That number is bound to grow as more people move from rural to urban areas in search of opportunity and resources.

“There are fewer opportunities in dense urban areas for purchasing land because of what is considered ‘highest and best use’ of land in urban centers, as in, land is more likely to be developed for housing and commercial businesses than set aside for food production,” Grant explained.

Sometimes farmers in denser areas patch together smaller parcels through a short-term agreement, such as Patchwork Farms, that remediates land on Chicago’s south and west sides to grown produce.To meet a rising need, people are cultivating new ways to make the most of unconventional growing spaces that cities offer, like vertical farming, rooftop farming, hydroponics, and aquaponics.

A big reason why Grant’s role in University of Illinois Extension is becoming increasingly important is the growing interest and ever-diversifying ways that urban agriculture is transforming Cook County.

A Legends South Farm Harvest Corps program participant gathers some leafy greens in late July.

 

In the last few years, Chicago has forged ahead with large-scale, high-tech, rooftop urban agriculture like Gotham Greens, an urban greenhouse that grows leafy greens in 75,000 square feet of space on top of the Method Soap building in Pullman. Or like Metropolitan Farms, a company that uses aquaponics to grow produce that ends up in local restaurants, farmers’ markets, and stores.

Of course, not all urban agriculture happens in raised beds, remediated soil, or on rooftops. Places like Legends South Farm encourage community members to grow their own produce, and that is often done in private backyards.

However, with the growing interest in cultivating and consuming local produce, safety concerns inevitably arise.

The land throughout Chicago has been altered over the decades. The whereabouts of one heavy metal contaminant, lead in particular, concerns Grant and Illinois crop sciences Assistant Professor Andrew Margenot.

Lead is a persistent contaminant, a metal that doesn’t evaporate and, once it lands, typically doesn’t migrate. The two main historical sources are leaded gasoline and leaded paint, which found ways into the soil from industries that may have occupied the land over the decades. In many cases, the lead is all that’s left behind.

Margenot and Grant are working on a project to map lead contamination in Chicago to be able to advise people on the what, where, and how to safely grow produce in the Chicago landscape.

“If you zoom out to a bird’s-eye view, you might be able to anticipate lead contamination based on what industry may have been present,” Margenot says. “But as we begin to telescope in, down to the block or even the backyard scale, we found that contamination levels can drastically change. You can walk two feet away, and there can be a thousand-fold difference in backyards. If we’re talking about that scale that the backyard owner cares about, that one’s trickier to map.”

The two have partnered with Advocates for Urban Agriculture to start a two-year pilot program, Chicago Safe Soils Initiative. They have been holding workshops throughout the city encouraging residents to bring in or mail in ground-soil samples for a free evaluation for the presence of heavy metals. These samples will also help map where contaminants have been found.

This is especially important in neighborhoods where there is an abundance of vacant lots.

“Communities that people think are the most food insecure in Chicago also have the greatest potential for urban production — but they could also have the most contamination,” Margenot cautions. “We need to get a handle on where there is risk, and quantify that.”

In the heart of Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, one of the highest-crime areas in the city, is Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation Garden. Raised beds of turnips, cabbage, radishes, and cucumbers are positioned in rows on top of what used to be the parking lot for a now-demolished church. New string trellises support tomato plants heavy with fruit. A scale on a table under an awning is ready to weigh produce.

Two youth care for tomato plants at Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation Garden.

This garden started in 2012 and has grown from a commu-nity garden into one that functions more like an urban farm. It’s closely connected to the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation program, which works with boys who have been in trouble. Some of them take on jobs caring for the garden through its restorative justice program.

José Chávez, who lives two blocks from the garden, started working there when he went through juvenile detention three years ago. He now brings his brother to work there, too. Chávez looks forward to Wednesdays when the garden gives food away, especially the jalapeños and onions.

“It’s peaceful,” he says. “It relaxes you and refreshes your mind.”Mary Harkenrider, a Beverly resident, volunteers there as part of the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener program and is enrolled in Grant’s Master Urban Farmer Training Program. She sees this garden playing more than one role in the area.

“This is a food desert. The cheapest thing to do is to go to the corner store and get chips,” Harkenrider says. “There is a real need in this area to have fresh vegetables. While the produce is a real necessity, the whole relationship-building that goes on here when people come into the garden, either to receive food or just to learn, is incredibly important to community-building.”

And communities like this, she says, need both: what’s being grown and a safe place.

“This is a safe place in a not-so-safe area.”