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Urban farmers forced off land find new ground to grow

| Saturday, July 21, 2018, 5:03 p.m.
A basket is filled with vegetables and fruits from an urban farm.
Raleigh News & Observer
A basket is filled with vegetables and fruits from an urban farm.

CHICAGO — The wind-whipped rooftop of a converted warehouse in the Kinzie Industrial Corridor might be the last place you’d expect to find fertile farmland, unless you’re Jen Rosenthal, founder and owner of Planted Chicago.

“I got my start in farming on the rooftop at Uncommon Ground, the restaurant up in Edgewater,” Rosenthal said. It was the first certified organic rooftop farm in the nation.

These days, urban farming is increasingly common, but the burgeoning business sector is not without its challenges, namely space and literal room to grow.

From her rooftop endeavors, Rosenthal began her own business installing and maintaining on-site gardens for chefs and restaurants across the city, including Lula Cafe in Logan Square.

“Three years ago, I took advantage of an opportunity on a little plot of land on the South Side to start also growing crops outright for some of the chefs that were looking for really specific niche ingredients,” she added.

What were among the custom crops she’s grown?

“One of my favorites and unusual were crosnes,” Rosenthal said. “They look like little tiny grubs, but they’re tubers.

“They’re amazing and have this really crunchy, juicy texture, kind of like a raw almond meets a water chestnut.”

But this growing season she’s back on rooftops as a consultant and not on her own farm in North Kenwood.

“I lost the lease,” said Rosenthal. “It was an incubator system, and I aged out. I think there’s this notion that people think urban farming is so easy. There’s so many empty lots. Like how difficult can it be?”

“It’s not quite as straightforward as one might think.” she added. “And I have been looking for good alternative land access for the three years.”

“It’s an interesting time in urban ag,” Rosenthal said. “It’s important work, and it’s meaningful work.”

“And I know I’m not one of the original pioneers. There are the Ken Dunns and the Erika Allens who are going on nearly two decades of this work.”

Allen is the co-founder and CEO of Urban Growers Collective, previously Growing Power.

Allen’s father, Will Allen, is the retired professional basketball player turned urban farmer who founded the original organization in Milwaukee. He won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2008. In November 2017, Growing Power closed.

“My dad was retiring, and the organization in Milwaukee had been financially challenged for a while,” said Erika Allen. “It had shifted to less programming and more urban farming, which is very difficult to do without capital.”

Urban Growers Collective is a not-for-profit that works to develop urban farms, but not just for food, though crops include a number of mustard green varieties, as well as herbs for culinary, aromatic and medicinal use.

“We use urban farming as a way to heal communities in terms of trauma and the violence that a lot of our youth and their families experience,” Allen said. “Also as a recovery from the historic impact of structural racism that manifested through the agriculture system.”

“So we’re taking this really broken system of agriculture that exploited labor first through slavery and then through sharecropping and then migrant workers. Now we’re taking that and reclaiming that and using it to create sustainable communities.”

“We’re highly productive as an urban farm, but really we couldn’t do the healing and infrastructure development that we do without philanthropic support.”

“Our goal with this new entity is to really support entrepreneurs, so they’re able to build farms that meet their financial goals and for us not to be in that business of trying to meet our budget with farm sales. We can’t do both.”

But even a pioneer like Erika Allen faces land access issues.

“Our primary farm is our South Chicago farm, 90th (Street) and Lake Shore Drive, right across from the old U.S. Steel site. That’s a 7-acre farm that replaced Iron Street, which used to be our biggest, but we lost that farm.”

“The owner wanted $14 million for the site, and we could not afford that.”

“Luckily we had a funder who’s incredibly generous and believes in us, so we had the resources to do it, but it was really emotional, after 10 years of building, taking an industrial site to a prosperous farm, to have to walk away from that.”

“We were able to relocate all the soil, animals and hoop houses to South Chicago. Now it’s on public land.”

The public land is critical to each farmer’s permanence, but new administrations can change policy, perhaps forcing them off land as Rosenthal experienced with Planted Chicago.

“The South Chicago farm is an important model because it’s publicly held land. The farmers we are ‘incubating’ — our incubator is not a two-year incubator, it’s a permanent incubator, meaning those farmers never have to leave the site — they’re in a training program. Once the training wheels are off, they maintain and continue to grow on the farm.”

“It’s our job to replicate the program on other land.”

From hundreds of growing farmers to the other end of the urban farm spectrum you get a one-woman operation, The Pie Patch, a half-acre strawberry farm in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. “I think it’s the only pick-your-own farm in the county,” owner and farmer Breanne Heath said. “It’s definitely one of the only certified organic fruit farms in Cook County.”

“I am a for-profit, but I’ve never actually made a profit,” Heath said. “I don’t think any for-profit farm in the city has yet.”

Like most urban farmers in Chicago, she does not own the land.

“I currently only have a lease that goes until the end of this year. Really, for a farmer to really plan, it really should be five to 10 years,” she said.

Heath previously worked the land when it was a Growing Home garden (not to be confused with Growing Power).

“I feel comfortable being in the area because I’m already familiar with it.” she said. “But I am aware of conversations around colonization of the neighborhood. I’m sensitive to that.”

“There is a lot of vacant land, and it should be used for growing food, but I don’t know if it all needs to (solely) be these urban farms,” she added. “That should be decided by the communities themselves.”

The city of Chicago also suggests plazas, landscapes, athletic fields, playgrounds or dog friendly areas too.

“There’s a lot of assumptions like, ‘Oh, everyone wants to grow their own food’ but not everyone wants that. It’s a huge amount of work.”

Back on the rooftop, Rosenthal, a friend of Heath’s, agreed. “It’s hard. People sometimes have a romantic notion.”

“But people connect with farming too. And the more they can and the more they can see a future with it, whether in an urban space or not, means everything right now.”

Despite her experience and expertise, rooftops are not her favorite place.

“It’s more the getting up,” Rosenthal said. “There are a couple where it’s straight up a wall on rung ladders and up through a hatch that you have to open and then climb out of. On some, I have to harness in.

“I feel a little more comfortable with my two feet planted firmly on the earth.”

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