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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Rooftop Garden at McCormick Place Supplies Fresh Produce and Jobs to Chicago

Rooftop Garden at McCormick Place Supplies Fresh Produce and Jobs to Chicago

October 31, 2013 |

Chicago Botanic Garden’s McCormick Place West Rooftop Garden

Chicago Botanic Garden’s McCormick Place West Rooftop Garden

As the largest “farm-to-fork” rooftop garden in the region, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s McCormick Place West Rooftop Garden has garnered quite a following in Chicago and across the Midwest since it was planted in late June. The gardening project was started to bring attention to local sustainable agriculture and to create jobs for people in the community.

SAVOR…Chicago, McCormick Place’s food service provider and funder, uses the fresh produce grown at McCormick Place for its restaurant and catering operations.

“They use what we are growing to highlight special dishes,” said Angie Mason, director of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban agriculture programs. “They buy everything! If we could grow more, they’d buy more!”

The garden was planted and designed by staff from the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest urban agriculture program. Windy City Harvest is the first institution in the state to offer an accredited urban agriculture certificate through its nine-month instructional and internship program utilizing the greenhouse and outdoor growing space at Daley College’s Arturo Velasquez Institute. The McCormick Place rooftop garden will be added to the program’s living laboratory. The McCormick Place rooftop garden also received a USDA Beginning Farmers and Ranchers grant, which allowed the Chicago Botanic Garden to develop industry-specific certificates.

The garden’s workforce training program also engages people who are underemployed by offering job placement opportunities. Approximately a third of the farm’s workforce includes people in a workforce program; another third are ex-offenders, and the remainder includes tuition-paying students, according to Mason. To work with ex-offenders, the program became involved with the Cook County Sheriff’s Vocational Rehabilitation Impact Center. The program also helps introduce offenders to gardening while they’re serving their sentences and provides transitional job placement.

The main hurdle the Chicago Botanical Gardens faced in launching the program was figuring out how to make the rooftop space productive. The garden utilizes an efficient composting operation, a 7500-gallon aquaponic operation, strives to conserve water, and grows all produce using organic methods. The building the garden sits atop is LEED-certified and saves its food scraps for composting.

Chicago Botanical Gardens hopes to put more of the building’s roof into production in the next year. So far, 20,000 square feet are in production, and another 15,000 square feet are planned for next year with the ultimate goal of transitioning the full three acres of rooftop into garden.

Mason said the current goal is to create and maintain nutrient rich soil.

“It’s fun for me because I like the science part of this, working with the existing soil, amending it and making it into vegetable produce,” she said.

The produce the organization has tried out has done really well so far, according to Mason.

“Since the temperature has dropped, it has helped the swiss chard, kale and tomatoes,” Mason said. The peppers, green beans and purple beans, herbs, and a certain, small variety of carrots have done well too. One item that has not done so well: beets. Mason is working on that, though.

Mason hopes that the McCormick Place rooftop garden will only be the beginning of the green roof movement in the city.

“There’s a lot of opportunity,” Mason says. “A building owner can make a productive roof, take the existing roof, and transfer it to veggie production. The green roof is not going away.”

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