Farm Focus: Radical Root Organic Farm

Tomatoes in the Hoophouse 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.

Just a good ole farm scene

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.

My mud covered boots

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/

Our Friends the Chickens

Sustainably Queer Urban Agriculture: A New Chapter for Rachel

Image We are still doing our best to get back to a regular posting schedule, but sometimes life happens and it's very unpredictable  At the moment, no one is really banging down our door asking for MORE POSTS IMMEDIATELY (although we could probably use some additional external motivation), but we honestly do have a list of possible posts about a yard long.

We're not trying to make excuses over here, but part of the reason our whole life is in flux is that I (Rachel) have recently started an intensive 9-month program in Sustainable Urban Agriculture! It is a program called Windy City Harvest, put on through a partnership between the Chicago Botanic Garden and Daley College of the Chicago City Colleges. The classes themselves take place (for the most part) at the Arturo Velazquez Institute, a.k.a. the West Side Technical Institute. This is the program's 7th year in existence and I am more than thrilled to be a part of it. (A lot of the exciting ventures focusing on local food in Chicago were started by or employ WCH graduates, and the recently opened Eataly enterprise hired 6 graduates at the end of last year!)

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The 9-month program starts with a spring semester with intensive classroom work (learning about stuff like greenhouse propagation, botany, soil science, and systemic environmental issues) and actual farming work in the AVI greenhouse and Rodeo farm near campus. The WCH staff runs 6-7 different farm sites in the city, and part of our job as students is to prepare seedlings for those farms and assist in transplanting. All this is to say, I've already been actively involved in prepping a farm for the growing season, and it is VERY HANDS ON. (Who knew soil blocking would be so labor intensive?!! Who knows what soil blocking is besides other farmer-y types and Kristl who has been helping me study?!)

We finish the spring semester at the end of May and immediately transition into a three-month paid internship at a farm somewhere in the city (or at the Chicago Botanic Garden). This is where the rubber hits the road and you get that serious, full-time, daily experience of being a farmer. Previous sites have included City Farm (from which Rick Bayless gets a lot of his vegetables) and the rooftop garden at Uncommon Ground on Devon.

Hopefully, I will graduate in October with a full growing season of experience, a final project in the form of a full farm plan, the concrete beginnings of a business plan, and a bright, burgeoning love of all things Urban Agriculture (I already have this). So far, Kristl has called me a nerd about 1,000,000 times and has been incredibly supportive of my quest to learn how to grow all the food for the rest of our lives. (Ideally, I would be able to at least significantly reduce our fruit and vegetable budget.)

One of the primary goals of the program is to take folks with unclear career paths or a desire to improve the food system but no related skills (that's me!) and prepare them for full-time work in urban agriculture. So, a big part of the final portion of the program, after the internship, is focused on helping participants explore what that looks like for them. As you may have guessed (since I have a Masters in Education and collaborate on this blog about sustainability), my goal is to educate people about food and how to grow it. I want to find ways to teach people how to grow their own food in whatever spaces they have and become more self-sustaining in an urban environment. (I recently read a statistic that said most major cities would completely run out of food in about three days if they lost access to their usual food supplies. We need to have a back-up plan.)

My career path could take many different forms, from individual gardening consulting, to starting a small education-focused urban farm where adults could take growing workshops. Hopefully, I would be able to take my passion for food out on the streets and give people the power to impact where their next meal is coming from.  I am personally inspired by the common proverb, "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."  It seems cliche, but even a good cliche packs a philosophical punch now and then.  What good does it do for my neighbors/friends/community/city for me to know how to farm and grow delicious food when others cannot? In so many economic models, it's not wise business practice to share your secrets and your essential professional knowledge, but there is so much to lose by not sharing that knowledge when it comes to food.  The food system we have now cannot be sustained, and this queer aims to be one of the few with the know-how to pick up the pieces when it does fall apart.

Regardless of how I proceed professionally, all our friends (and readers) are welcome to contact me with questions about WCH and my experiences. If you are already planning to grow your own food and want some (almost!) expert advice, I should be able to provide it, if not for 2014, definitely for 2015 and beyond. I'm just really freaking excited about increasing food literacy and food sovereignty in Chicago, and if that excites you too, let's make a more sustainable city together!

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