Farm Bureau members explore Chicago farming, direct consumer markets | General


Toasty hoop houses kept warm via fermentation to sophisticated LED lighting specific for hydroponic greens, Farm Bureau members experienced a gamut of Chicago agriculture technology.

During the Illinois Farm Bureau Annual Meeting, 20-some members and staff joined the second Taste of Illinois on Location farm-to-table tour.

A brisk, cold wind whipped across 7 acres of the Urban Growers Collective (UGC) South Chicago Farm on Mackinaw Avenue beside the Calumet Harbor. At that location, UGC raises goats and grows a variety of food crops in outdoor plots and unheated hoop houses on 3 acres owned by the Chicago Park District.

“We are a model for specialty crop growers who can serve and meet needs. We have impacted (public) policy by saying, ‘Food is needed, too,’” said Erika Allen, one of the nonprofit organization’s founders and a member of the Illinois Farm Service Agency State Committee.

UGC operates eight farms totaling 11 acres on the city’s south and west sides. In addition to producing food, UGC provides educational opportunities and farm experience programs for youth ages 14 through 18. It also offers 60 10-by-10-foot community garden plots that rent for $20 for a growing season.

During the tour, an unheated hoop house filled with lush greens provided shelter from biting winds. Paige Tobin, the farm administrator, explained UGC helps keep the hoop houses warm by using fermentation and composting processes. Around the outside base of each hoop house, workers place a mixture of beer mash from a local brewery combined with plants and other compost materials.

“It heats our hoop houses all winter because of the fermentation process,” Tobin told the visitors. “All the soil (for the farm) was brought in or created through composting.”

Subscriptions through UGC’s community supported agriculture program provide seasonal foods in early summer, mid-summer, fall and winter. Mobile fresh produce markets take UGC produce into neighborhoods. A couple of buses and two trucks serve as farmers markets.

“This is a way we can get out into the community. People have mobility issues,” said Mykele Callicutt, the program coordinator.

In addition to familiar foods, like collard greens, UGC grows and promotes kale, rutabaga and other less familiar vegetables and provides recipe cards. “That is food literacy in deployment that is natural to the community,” Callicutt said.

UGC also offered a farm fair with farm vendors and farm stands. “This is not patronizing, it’s a partnership,” Allen added.

The farm location had special significance to IFB Director Mark Tuttle of DeKalb County. Tuttle’s family members once ran a small store in the neighborhood and others worked nearby. Tuttle appreciated the tour experience and opportunity to learn more about urban farming.

“We all have to come together,” Tuttle said. “Everyone likes to eat.”

Next, the Farm Bureau group focused on direct marketing at Green City Market’s Avondale indoor farmers market, 3031 Rockwell St. In addition to the Avondale location, the nonprofit organization offers markets in Lincoln Park and the West Loop. The Lincoln Park outdoor location can attract 10,000 to 15,000 customers on a single market day, while the two outdoor markets served 325,000 customers from April through November, said Mandy Moody, Green City Market executive director.

“We’ve done a lot to market how important it is to support local farmers,” Moody said.

The market also works with food assistance programs and provides a double match for $25 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. “We match it (SNAP) twice for $75 worth of goods. It drives a lot of business to our farmers,” Moody said. The matching program totaled $150,000 in sales for farmer vendors.

Green City Market offers nine programs throughout the year to promote the market, farmer vendors and different foods. Several young consumers joined the kids’ activity at the Avondale market. The children made their own pasta shapes that they would taste later. Another program, dubbed “Sustainable Supper,” offers a meal prepared by chefs who buy from farmer vendors. During the meal, a panel that includes farmers answers questions and speaks to diners.

Education brought Mary Zumwalt, an Effingham County Farm Bureau agriculture literacy coordinator, on the tour. Close-up experiences with urban farming can’t compare with reading about it, according to Zumwalt. “I wanted to hear and learn about that to teach the kids,” she said.

Technology supported hydroponic and aquaculture production at Windy City Harvest’s Farm on Ogden, 3555 W. Ogden Ave. The operation, supported by the Chicago Botanic Garden, includes outdoor production at the Ogden location and 13 other farms and growing sites around Chicago. These include three youth farms, four adult training farms, three garden allotments and three contract partners, including a McCormick Place rooftop farm.

At the Ogden farm, Violet Jordan, sales coordinator, explained weekly planting and harvesting provides continuous lettuce production from the farm’s hydroponic system. “We get it year-round,” Jordan said. Flats of hydroponic greens grew beside large vertical tanks of tilapia and other fish. In a separate room, an aquaponics system supported greens and fish in a closed-loop system.

Outside the building, a series of raised beds provides space for the youth farm, according to Reynaldo Engram, the Ogden Farm hub assistant. Engram explained that a wide variety of vegetables and fruits are grown in the plots to provide the teens with experience.

That experience includes training in food sanitation and food safety processes. Glistening wash stations and spotless floors showed attention to detail in the farm’s processing area. Engram and Jordan explained youth trainees and others attending classes learn food safety protocols and government regulations.

“We teach that to beginning farmers,” Jordan said. “A big part of the training program is to be prepared.”

WATCH: See a video from the event.

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