GLENCOE, Ill. (August 19, 2014) – The Chicago Botanic Garden received a $750,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2012 to begin a three-year project to support the expansion of urban agriculture activities in Chicago’s South Side and West Side food desert neighborhoods. In the second year of the grant, four incubator sites have been established. The grant, funded by the USDA’s Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), is being implemented through the Garden’s Windy City Harvest program, an urban agriculture training initiative.
The grant calls for six beginning farmers to be supported on farm incubator sites over the three years of the grant, allowing them to launch, test, and refine their growing practices and business skills as entrepreneurs.
In its pilot year, the program supported two businesses—Urban Aggies, a vegetable farm production site in Chicago’s west Garfield Park community area, located on a NeighborSpace plot; and Field and Florist, a sustainable floral production farm located in a southwest Chicago neighborhood on Cook County property. Field and Florist is the first incubator “graduate” and has established a business in Chicago; Urban Aggies continues in year two at the Legends South incubator farm located at 45th and Federal Streets, on the site of what was formerly the Robert Taylor Homes public housing project. Visit http://youtu.be/56thvEsoNQg to see a video about Legends. Click here for photo gallery.
The two-acre urban farm is a collaborative effort among Windy City Harvest; Brinshore-Michaels, the mixed-income housing developer; and the Chicago Housing Authority. The farm site uses a raised-bed approach to growing on land that has contamination issues. Geotextile fabric covers the site, and compost-filled beds are contained by timbers that keep paths neat. This approach eliminates the need for expensive stormwater abatement solutions because rainfall is contained on the site. The Legends South farm site has multiple quarter-acre plots, as well as shared-use tool storage, a Good Agricultural Practices-approved wash pack station, and hoophouse propagation space for extended-season growing.
Three incubator businesses have been established at the Legends site. Urban Aggies has a quarter-acre plot and grows vegetables for wholesale markets. Your Bountiful Harvest Family Farm also has a quarter-acre plot and grows vegetables for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) market boxes, for residents of the Legends community and for wholesale distributors, including Midwest Foods. The third business is Dirt Dolls, which farms a one-eighth-acre plot and sells Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)-style boxes through subscription and to local independent food stores and cooperatives.
These beginning (or incubator) farmers have all graduated from the Garden’s Windy City Harvest Apprenticeship training program, which is run in partnership with Daley College’s Arturo Velasquez Institute (AVI), 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. Incubator farmers have access to tools and technical assistance in making their urban farms successful and profitable, from planting through wholesale and retail sales.
The grant has also funded the development and delivery of industry-specific professional certificates in business and entrepreneurship for local foods, aquaponics and vertical farming systems, extended-season growing, edible landscaping and rooftop gardening, composting, and cottage food and value-added products. Three of these courses will be offered in the evening at AVI starting in September; the remaining three will be rolled out in 2015.
Begun in 2007, Windy City Harvest 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. Windy City Harvest has awarded certificates to 71 students over the past five years. Nearly 90 percent of graduates have full-time employment; 71 percent are employed in the green industry. 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 its first full year in 2008, Windy City Harvest has expanded its training and production operations to 11 and created one of the country’s most robust education and jobs-training programs in sustainable urban agriculture. Over seven years, Windy City Harvest has achieved the following:
- Developed a training curriculum and management protocol that draws on the best practices in sustainable agriculture and incorporates the Chicago Botanic Garden’s expertise in working with both accomplished and high-need students.
- Produced and harvested more than 300,000 pounds of premium produce for sale through wholesale, retail and government-subsidized channels (e.g., Women, Infants and Children’s distribution sites, and markets that take Illinois Link cards and senior coupons).
- Worked with 71 adults who graduated from the Apprenticeship program (with 14 more scheduled to finish in 2014), including 12 young men from alternative sentencing backgrounds.
- Placed 90 percent of all graduates to date in related seasonal and full-time jobs at places as diverse as Midwest Foods (wholesale distribution center), Uncommon Ground’s rooftop farm, FarmedHere (commercial aquaponics production), and local community farms such as the Talking Farm’s Howard Street site in Skokie.
- Developed a network of business, nonprofit, and funding partners that support program work and employment of graduates.