SPINS employees helping out at an urban farm

Out of the Data and Into the Dirt: SPINS’ Adventures in Urban Agriculture

By Jessica Hochman

There are countless reasons why SPINS is perfectly at home in Chicago, and the city’s vibrant urban agriculture community is certainly one. After SPINS’ Inspire Vibrancy group organized a volunteer day at The Talking Farm in nearby Skokie, several SPINS team members joined our Hubbard Street neighbors from Family Farmed on their Urban Ag Bus Tour the next day.

The Talking Farm

The Talking Farm’s mission is equally rooted in sustainable agriculture and education. Its satellite location, the Edible Acre, involves Evanston Township High School students from the Northern Chicago suburb in the growing and marketing of produce, both as coursework and as summer jobs. Crops are routinely served in the school’s cafeteria and sold at the Evanston Farmers Market. The group has also contributed to the flourishing school garden community at any number of elementary and middle schools in Evanston.

SPINS visited the nonprofit group’s largest land home, the two-acre Howard Street Farm, in nearby Skokie. In the Linda Kruhmin Demonstration Garden, diverse methods are on display to help visitors learn to grow food at home with raised beds and small-scale hoophouses for season extension. We walked the long path to the back of the full-scale production fields to the larger hoophouses, checked out covered and uncovered row crops, explored native plants as well as fruit and nut trees along the perimeter fences, and learned about the farm’s membership box (like a community-supported agriculture program or CSA) and foodservice distribution with partner Local Foods from inside the new produce-washing shed.

Then, in perfect fall weather, we got to work. (Wheelbarrows full of woodchips don’t move themselves!) Our efforts were rewarded with a variety of vegetables: arugula, chard, leeks, radishes, peppers, and more were shared among our grateful crew.

Want to learn more about crop-diverse, community agriculture? The Talking Farm holds open volunteer hours, organizes group opportunities, offers internships, hosts special events, and partners with corporate sponsors. Find more information at www.thetalkingfarm.org.

Family Farmed’s Urban Ag Bus Tour

Despite dark skies and dramatic rains, the tour’s first stop was an indoor hydroponic site, saving the rooftop heights for later when, we all hoped, the lightning would abate enough to allow us to visit. Breanne Heath served as an excellent tour guide: she’s the farmer-owner of The Pie Patch, a you-pick farm in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, and she also serves as a farmer and educator at multiple sites of the Peterson Garden Project.

Garfield Produce Company

Garfield Produce Company, like many of Chicago’s urban ag organizations, sows seeds of social responsibility along with its crops, with a mission to provide good food, jobs, and opportunity to residents of the neighborhood through a partnership with Breakthrough Urban Ministries. Vice President Darius Jones explained the group’s commercial trajectory, starting with a few racks and experimenting with prototype racks of their own design. They’re testing variables like the building materials (metal or wood), color of the lights (white lights, for example, help novice growers-in-training to identify the types of young greens), the number of levels to each rack, fibers of the growing medium (including coconut husk), individual tanks or lines to shared water supplies, etc. As the young company continues to develops its systems, they’ll be able to expand production and make full use of the 5,600-square-foot space. Garfield Produce Company grows a wide range of products – everything from head lettuce to herbs, microgreens, specialty salad greens, and sprout – for their clients at fine restaurants as well as retailers.

Cheerful and modest, you might not know from meeting him that Jones himself is one of Chicago’s most celebrated urban ag success stories – though everyone around him is quick to share praise or a favorite memory of time spent with him. Read more about his remarkable background in Crain’s Chicago Business, the New York Times, and on the Farm Aid website.

After savoring a bite of potent micro-scallions, our tour took us to the Humboldt Park neighborhood for a different view at Patchwork Farms. If our visit to Garfield Park focused more on the science of indoor growing, Patchwork Farms proved the perfect foil as we splashed through the puddles and soil of its half-acre plot.

Patchwork Farms

Here the land is portioned off into beds where crops are frequently rotated, allowing the soil to be enriched and restored by the variety of plants. Around the beds’ perimeters, clover fixes nitrogen in the soil and creeps into the narrow walkways, which are just wide enough for the female farmers’ boots, Elise Robison said.

Robison is part of a small group of young women who run the operation, designed to feed the residents of its immediate community, and, unlike many of Chicago’s programs, Patchwork Farms is a for-profit organization. With a CSA and a bi-weekly farm stand, Patchwork sells its produce, fresh eggs, honey, and flowers at prices on a sliding scale where customers pay what they can. This commitment results in variable compensation for the farmers’ long hours, but Robinson maintained that their model benefits residents and provides a living wage for the farmers.

New developments to fuel the site’s growth include an event space at the back of the plot, shared space from neighbors at Christy Webber Landscapes on occasion, and a grant from Frontera Farmer Foundation for a shipping-container-sized composter on site.

The Rooftop at McCormick Place

As one of 13 growing sites administered by the Chicago Botanic Gardens’ Windy City Harvest initiative in urban agriculture, the farm that wraps around the top floors of McCormick Place is the largest rooftop garden in the Midwest. It provides fresh produce exclusively to the convention center’s Savor…Chicago restaurants, and, while production serves commercial foodservice, the site retains an experimental philosophy in terms of what and how it grows food. Recently, chefs challenged growers to focus on varietals from Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste, and so they have, devoting much of the half-acre space to heirloom foods like Amish Deer Tongue and Speckled lettuces, Beaver Dam and Hinklehatz peppers, and Jacob’s Cattle and Trail of Tears Beans (all pictured below).

Windy City Harvest Apprentices take charge of the farm’s daily operations, but the training ethos extends to younger growers, too. Students from around the city represented youth groups like After School Matters and Urban Garden Lab during our tour, sharing their knowledge about vermicomposting with our group and a steady stream of visitors.

In addition to honey from its own beehives, the garden boasts an eponymous beer made from hops grown right on the roof. The collaboration with BrickStone Brewery debuted earlier this year.

Want to learn more about Chicago’s vibrant urban agriculture scene? Take your own tour with Family Farmed in March of 2018 during the Good Food Expo. You can also find good food news, events, and resources on Family Farmed’s website and blog.