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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Once a Gas Station, Now a Thriving Sustainable Urban Farm

August 17, 2011 |

City Farm Sustainable Urban Vegetable Farm ChicagoOn the borderline between the affluent Gold Coast section of Chicago, IL and the neighborhood that was once home to Cabrini-Green, one of America’s most infamous housing projects sits a sustainable urban vegetable farm called City Farm.

The farm occupies one acre of land surrounded by a fence latticed with six-foot tall sunflowers. City Farm is run by the Resource Center, a Chicago-based non-profit environmental education organization that develops and demonstrates innovative techniques for recycling and reusing materials.

The land on which City Farm sits is owned by the city of Chicago. The organization’s relationship with the city is a “partnership” to take a wasted space and utilize it in a way that increases the value of the land and makes the area it is in more appealing to development, City Farm director Andy Rozendaal said.

“As communities change, it’s inviting when there’s a garden or farm or farm stand,” he said. “It’s more of an atmosphere that people want to be a part of. It’s helpful to the community.”

A farm that was a gas station

City Farm used to be a gas station. It was also a de facto dumping site for debris from a demolished building located nearby. Before the organization could grow any vegetables, the land had to be remediated. To insure against soil contamination the land was capped with a four to six inch layer of clay to control potential site contamination. The clay cap acts as a barrier to protect the crops from absorbing any chemicals that might have seeped into the ground.  Otherwise, Rozendaal is not too anxious about pollution – an issue all urban farms encounter.

“It’s like asking a person walking along the street are you worried about breathing the air,” he explained. “I think the air quality would be more of an issue.”

The growing environment

The crops grow in high nutrient, moisture rich composted soil generated from a number of different sources including from restaurant trimming provided by many of the city’s top restaurants. City Farm’s produce ranges from onions and 30 varieties of tomatoes to beets, herbs and gourmet lettuces. There is a beehive and even a hen house with a few ISA Brown chickens that lay eggs.

While City Farm does not use any chemicals or synthetic inputs, it is not a certified organic farm, Rozendaal noted.

Since the farm is only one acre, space is limited, volunteer Sara Goel explained as she planted the onions and tomatoes in the same row to save space.

City Farm does not grow crops like corn, which would take up too much space and consequently have a low yield, Rozendaal said. The farm focuses on crops that have a shorter growth cycle. The goal is to get the most calories out of the land, he explained.

Rozendaal also noted that City Farm specifically grows vegetables like heirloom tomatoes, which do not ship well.

Customers

The farm sells 65 to 75 percent of its produce to 15 Chicago restaurants, Rozendall said. Five of these restaurants have a specific commitment to sourcing sustainable and locally produced food.

The remainder of the produce goes to CSA members or is sold at the local farmers market. City Farm’s CSA members buy a share of the farm at the beginning of the year and pick up a bag of vegetables on Saturday mornings during the growing season, Largent explained. This comes out to about $23 – $25 per week, Rozendaal added. City Farm has a farm stand and additionally sells at the Logan’s Square Farmers Market.

“Some of the people buy it because it’s a good product and it’s local. Some people just buy it because you can’t find it elsewhere and it tastes better,” Largent noted.

Community outreach

The farm donates any leftover food. If a resident of the neighborhood surrounding the farm cannot afford the food, Rozendaal explained that they will lower the price upon sale.

Still, Rozendaal said that community outreach is currently City Farm’s biggest struggle.

“We need to do a better job of representing the community that we’re a part of – sell products that they want to eat,” he said.

City Farm works with GreenCorp, which trains ex-offenders in skills that will allow them to find employment in the green economy. Two teenagers who needed summer jobs got positions at the farm due to its association with Heartland Alliance, an organization that aids the impoverished.

Rozendaal said that he wanted the farm to have more interaction with area schools, like Edward Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts. The next staff member City Farm will hire will focus exclusively on education, he noted.

“If the community doesn’t benefit, then we’re really wasting the resource that we’ve been given, but there’s also a desire for the restaurants to have it,” he said. “There’s a balance we have to figure out.”

City Farm has figured out how to entice volunteers. Over 850 come every year. Volunteer Sara Goel grew up on a farm in southern Illinois. Her parents are conventional farmers and grow corn and soybeans.

“Every year they see their outputs diminished,” she explained. “They have to buy more pesticides and fertilizers to make up for that. They’re really not making that much money in the end.”

The Future

City Farm notes on its website that it hopes to create a permanent demonstration and training facility for urban farmers and also to replicate the City Farm model on other vacant lots throughout the city in order to increase the availability of local food, create jobs and provide training for those who want to convert land and thrive off of it themselves.

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