Chicago's City Farm: Farming in the City

Ken Dunn's program converts vacant lots to organic growing.

Contrast in Chicago

City Farm's crops contrast sharply with usual city shades.

courtesy Tim Wilson

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Learning from the Ground Up

Ken Dunn is seeing green. He has a vision – a huge vision, in fact. He aspires to transform every single vacant lot in Chicago into one big, thriving, organic, sustainable city farm.

His goal is ambitious: an estimated 30,000 to 80,000 lots are empty, a total of approximately 10,000 acres within the city limits, many of which are located in low-income areas. Where there is now concrete, rubble and broken glass, Dunn sees a potential green oasis – one that can provide local jobs, beautification, fresh organic produce and invaluable training to schoolchildren and adults alike.

Dunn is founder and director of the Resource Center, an innovative non-profit that runs City Farm on just one acre in a vacant lot adjacent to public housing at Clybourn Avenue and Division Street, bordering the two diverse neighborhoods of Cabrini-Green and the Gold Coast. This humble beginning has generated four full-time jobs, an on-site farm stand, local and national media attention, and the grateful patronage of Chicago's top chefs who regularly buy City Farm's produce for their gourmet restaurants.

A wonderful resource

Dunn long has been a man of vision. For more than 30 years, the Resource Center creatively brought together resources, both human and material, whose value has been overlooked, into economically viable projects that help create sustainable communities. Simply put, he’s taken stuff that normally would be thrown out and made something great out of it – all while augmenting human dignity.

An excellent example is the Perishable Food Recovery Program, which collects from restaurants and groceries edible food that would otherwise be wasted and delivers it to neighborhood food programs, such as homeless shelters and soup kitchens. The Creative Reuse Warehouse gathers overruns, rejects and by-products from business and industry and gives them to Chicago teachers and other organizations to teach classes, create student art and many other uses.

Blackstone Bicycle Works teaches neighborhood youth how to repair and customize bikes from donated recycled bicycles and parts. The Resource Center also operates a composting site and provides composting education and bins as well as community garden assistance.

Dunn started using the name City Farm in the early 1990s, and the farm has been operating at the present site since 2004, providing green space and organic farming education.

“We provide jobs and community service to low-income and minority communities,” he says. “Mayor Daley has endorsed this as a proper treatment for vacant space.”

City Farm’s green oasis

It’s about 4 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, and a colorful cornucopia of kale, okra, beets, tomatoes, hot peppers and flowers is for sale on the bustling Clybourn Avenue.

Welcome to the City Farm on-site farm stand, where lucky urban customers buy the finest seasonal organic produce three days a week. The market stand is at the entrance of the City Farm lot, which grows an amazing 80 varieties of produce, including 25 types of tomatoes, on just one acre.

“Our primary customers are restaurants, but our market stand is another big part of our sales,” says Tim Wilson, manager of Urban Agriculture for the Resource Center. “We annually sell $45,000 worth of produce and another $20,000 worth of recycled firewood.

“With urban agriculture, we can show what can be done with an average vegetable garden lot,” he says.

If you visit City Farm on Wednesday mornings, you may meet Caroline Gottschalk-Druschke, one of the 15 or so dedicated volunteers who happily get their hands dirty for a good cause. She appreciates all she’s learning about gardening and sustainable agriculture.

“I have a little gardening experience at home with tomatoes and herbs,” she says. “The farmers here are tremendously patient and are wonderful teachers.” They are also very knowledgeable and spend a lot of time training volunteers.

“I’m interested in sustainable agriculture and local food systems. Rather than using an academic approach, I want to connect with people actually doing sustainable agriculture,” says Gottschalk-Druschke, who teaches rhetoric and composition at the University of Illinois and is also a third-year Ph.D. student.

“I also enjoy interacting with the farmers and the amazing mix of people here,” she adds. “This includes chefs and people from the housing project.”

Restaurants rave

With City Farm’s convenient North Side location, popular Chicago area restaurants can follow the latest trends of buying local, organic and in season. Many chefs prize the quality that City Farm’s just-picked produce brings to their dishes. City Farm’s current restaurant roster includes the Frontera Grill, Scoozi!, Goose Island and many others.

Bruce Sherman is chef-owner of the Chicago’s prestigious North Pond Restaurant, one of the 15 restaurants that enthusiastically buy from City Farm. Sherman was named one of America’s Best New Chefs of 2003 by Food and Wine magazine. He’s also been nominated for the 2007 “Best Chef: Great Lakes” award from the James Beard Foundation.

Although he is committed to buying locally, he’s not willing to sacrifice taste and quality to do so. Fortunately, City Farm fits the bill.

“City Farm does great work and produces a great product,” Sherman says. “It’s rewarding and worthwhile, both professionally and humanely, to buy from them.”

Although it’s not required, restaurants can donate their kitchen clippings to City Farm's compost, says Wilson.

“The net result is that we provide green services to restaurants,” Dunn says. “We deliver produce and recycled firewood, and also take their fryer oil to fuel our trucks, pick up their recycling and composting. This is the direction we need to move in as a society, toward being more sustainable and less wasteful.”

Learning from the ground up

As part of its mission, City Farm provides education to visiting school groups and others interested in sustainable organic urban agriculture. In the past, City Farm also has hosted a picnic for the American Community Gardening Association and a dinner for the Slow Food organization. For some urban dwellers, it’s an enlightening experience to learn how food grows.

“We also teach classes to grade-school students on botany, ecology, gardening and global food,” Wilson says. “In addition, we’ve had about 50 interns from the Cabrini-Green housing project over the last few years.”

Winter wonderland

Despite the often harsh Chicago winter, a “hoop house” greenhouse allows year-round productivity.

“Unheated plastic enclosures allow us to grow freeze-hearty plants in the winter. However, the production is one-fifth less,” Dunn says.

A mobile farm

When the site is ready for redevelopment, City Farm is designed to be easily relocated.

“It’s too expensive to own the land, so the City of Chicago gives us a year-to-year lease for free. We’ll be given notice to pick up the farm and move across to another lot,” Dunn says. “The City of Chicago would like us to tend all vacant properties, so that these lots can be kept attractive and protected.”

“We call ourselves a farm, rather than a community garden, because we’re not stopping at only one site. We plan to expand to multiple lots,” Wilson says.

With Dunn’s vision and commitment that may become a reality – to the abundance of all.

Digging Deeper

 * Resource Center and City Farm, www.ResourceCenterChicago.org 

* City Farm buys its heirloom tomato seeds from: Johnny’s Selected Seeds, www.JohnnySeeds.com and Fedco-Seeds, www.FedcoSeeds.com 

 * For 400 varieties of heirloom tomato seeds: Heirloom Tomatoes, www.HeirloomTomatoes.Bizland.com

 * North Pond Restaurant, Chicago, www.NorthPondRestaurant.com 

Freelance journalist and photographer Letitia L. Star is enthused about urban farms and community gardens springing up in the Chicago area.