Chicago Botanic Garden Awarded $750,000 from USDA’s Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program
-- the Garden’s Windy City Harvest urban agriculture training program to lead network of partners in creating six agri-business incubator sites in Chicago neighborhoods over next three years
GLENCOE, Ill. (May 17, 2013) – The Chicago Botanic Garden has received a $750,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to begin a three-year project that will support the expansion of urban agriculture activities in Chicago’s south and west side food desert neighborhoods. The project will be implemented through the Garden’s Windy City Harvest (WCH) program, an urban agriculture training initiative. The grant is funded by the USDA’s Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Six beginning farmers will be supported on farm incubator sites over the next three years, allowing them to launch, test, and refine their growing practices and business skills as entrepreneurs. Incubator locations will be in south and west side Chicago communities that are often tagged as food deserts. In addition to growing space, beginning farmers -- all must be qualified through prior Windy City Harvest training -- will have access to tools and technical assistance in making their urban farms successful and profitable, from planting through wholesale and retail sales.
The Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Grant will also support the education and training of certificate students in Windy City Harvest, a Garden-sponsored program that is run in partnership with Daley College’s Arturo Velasquez Institute, a City Colleges of Chicago campus. Adult students are trained through a nine-month classroom instruction period; hands-on lab; and paid, three-month internship experience.
The grant will also fund the development and delivery of industry-specific professional certificates in local food entrepreneurship and business planning, aquaponics and vertical farming systems, extended-season growing, rooftop gardening, composting, and cottage food production. These courses will be developed and offered with the City Colleges of Chicago.
Begun in 2007, WCH is a nine-month classroom and hands-on training program in organic vegetable and plant production. It serves a variety of students, from self-paying career changers to people who are often bypassed by traditional training and employment programs, including ex-offenders and others with multiple barriers to employment. In partnership with Daley College, the program offers an advanced continuing education certificate in sustainable horticulture and urban agriculture -- the first certificate of its kind approved by the Illinois Community College Board. WCH has successfully awarded certificates to 57 students over the past five years. Nearly 90 percent of graduates have full-time employment; 71 percent are employed in the green collar sector. The Windy City Harvest program is a core training ground for the growers and food system workers who are in steady demand by a rapidly expanding local food economy.
“Urban agriculture education and training is seen as part of the solution to problems facing communities in Chicago that have limited access to affordable, fresh produce and whose residents suffer the impacts of a nutrition-poor diet. Urban agriculture is also a vital part of the local food movement that connects people with local growers, reduces the huge carbon footprint of conventional food distribution, and creates local economic value and jobs,” said Sophia Shaw, president and CEO of the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Since 2007, the program’s garden production sites have produced more than 125,000 pounds of vegetables that have been donated to food pantries, redeemed through Women, Infant and Children (WIC) centers and farmers markets that accept federal nutrition benefits, and sold to premium food distributors and upscale retailers.
In addition to operating production sites on land owned by Daley College/AVI, NeighborSpace, Kraft Foods, and Cook County, WCH also operates a production and training garden with the Vocational Rehabilitation Impact Center (VRIC), a four-month alternative sentencing facility for young, nonviolent male offenders run by the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. Since its creation in 2009, the one-acre VRIC garden has provided work-readiness training and job skills in urban agriculture to more than 200 inmates and has produced 56,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables that are used in the mess hall and distributed at WIC centers and to local food pantries.
VRIC garden participants can, when they are released, apply for available transitional job positions offered through Windy City Harvest, working at the Chicago Botanic Garden and various WCH production sites. Funding for transitional jobs is provided by another partner, the City of Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services. As part of the USDA grant, Angelic Organics Learning Center has been engaged to provide project assessment and a workshop that helps would-be farmers better understand what is involved in choosing this work.