Some folks find it straight up unbelievable that I plan to live in the third largest city in the United States of America and be a farmer at the same time. Unbelievable. Everyday, however, it becomes more reasonable to think about farming as a career choice in big cities and small cities alike. City governments are becoming more friendly towards the interests and needs of urban farmers and urban farmers are gaining an economic foothold in the markets where city people buy their all-important fresh vegetables. It's a win-win situation.
However, no matter how fabulous and rich urban farming becomes there is always going to be a niche for what we (in the business) call para-urban farming. This is roughly suburban farming. These farms are far enough away from a major city to have large tracks of land available (in some way) for primarily farm work, but close enough to the city to get the business from those consumers who are not willing or able to grow their own food. Where urban farms may be small enough to only use hand tools, para-urban farms may warrants a tractor or a backhoe, if they're into large scale machinery.
In our study of urban farming this spring, we took a very exciting and very muddy field trip to visit a para-urban farm, Radical Root Organic Farm in Libertyville, Illinois. Radical Root is lucky because they are living and growing on land that is owned by a conservation organization. It is bordered by parkland on one side and land owned by another municipality on the other side. Alex, the farmer and our guide, noted that there was no way he and his family could have afforded to buy the land they live on and they were also lucky that alfalfa had been growing organically on the land for some time, so gaining "organic" status was not as tedious a process for them. They had started their farm at another location known as a farm "incubator", which not only helps farmers improve their skills at farming but also at the business of farming. They have a lease on the land for ten years, and the Civil War era barn on the property was retrofitted for a weekend market and post harvest handling, mostly to their specifications. Basically, it's a pretty sweet deal.
The day we visited Radical Root was very muddy. We were split up throughout the day, I spent the morning in the hoop-house (a semi-permanent plastic greenhouse) "bumping up" tomatoes to bigger seedling pots. The cold spring we've had has made it difficult to get hot weather crops (like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, etc) in the ground early, so Alex was giving his tomatoes more room indoors so the plants would be bigger when he could finally move them outdoors. In the afternoon, we planted all manner of things outside in the mud, including cabbage, fennel, and lettuce. I have heavy-duty, water geologist-approved muck boots, but I was still up to my ankles in mud and slipping all over the places. It was a day of hard work at the farm, but it was fun to see how things get done at a farm with a little more space and less infrastructure to deal with.
Alex already has 300 chickens who Kristl and I got an egg share from last summer and they are planning on moving up to 600 chickens, but this year, they are only including egg shares on their vegetable CSAs. If you interested in a CSA and you have not committed to one yet, I can highly recommend these farmers and their products. They definitely know what they are doing and they will make sure you a delicious box crammed with fresh organic veggies every week all summer. They drop off at the Uncommon Ground in Edgewater, Green City Market by the Lincoln Park Zoo, or the Logan Square Market, so there's options for everyone. If you aren't into commitment, they sell veggies at Green City and Logan Square Markets a la carte as well.
Check out their website here for more information: http://www.radicalrootfarm.com/