November 9, 2004: The word “agriculture”
evokes certain pictures that vary with the individual. A short
drive outside of Chicago, fields and fields of corn or soybeans
evoke one image. Barns and cows conjure up another. In more
progressive circles, agriculture may mean food and small family
farmers living close to the land.
AT A GLANCE
Kabiyisi Urban Farms
Urban agriculture topples the myth that food production has
to occur in wide-open spaces on large tracts of land. In fact,
urban agriculture flies in the face of what usually has been
done (and shown to be possible) in urban communities. Urban
agriculture is part of a growing trend toward locally produced
food, knowing where food comes from and who grew it.
Urban agriculture has been around for centuries. In 16th century Peru, a self-reliant
urban agricultural system thrived in the Andes mountain city
Machu Picchu. In 19th century France, biointensive agriculture
fed local communities in urban centers.
Urban agriculture is about feeding people; it embraces the
rights of farmers to produce food and the right of community
to choose what they want to eat. Urban agriculture also embraces
the concept of food sovereignty, a concept developed by Vía
Campesina and introduced at the World Food Summit in Rome
At a follow-up summit five years later, a group of NGOs described
food sovereignty as “the right of peoples, communities,
and countries to define their own agricultural, labor, fishing,
food, and land policies which are ecologically, socially,
economically, and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances....”
Food sovereignty introduces a complete integration of social
justice ideals that do not begin and end with food production
but take into account every aspect of the system. It favors
local food for local communities over food produced for import
Bring it on home
My involvement in urban agriculture began with a simple wish
to feed my son a healthy diet. After learning of his severe
food allergies, I started to research the potential connection
to food. I wanted to better understand what the proper diet
for a 2 year old who was allergic to peanuts, shellfish, eggs,
cheese and milk would look like! My research led me to the
conclusion that the best diet for my son, and my whole family,
would be a whole-foods diet with as little processed, packaged
food included as possible.
Not realizing that I was asking a big question, I stumbled
across some articles that mentioned genetically modified (GMO)
food. However, when I examined food labels, no mention of
GMOs could be found. How could this happen, and why was I
not made aware of this? As I read further, I found out about
industrial agriculture and all of its hazards. I was not prepared
for the revelation that I knew very little about where my
food came from or who grew it. Prior to this incident with
my son, I would not have even considered the fact healthy
and nutritious food has a lot to do with how that food was
Closing in on a solution proved more difficult. Wallowing
in the “industrial agriculture in the country needs
to change” mentality did not get the food on the table
in my Westside Chicago neighborhood. I needed to gain access
to food unpolluted by genetic engineering and free from pesticides.
I needed organic food. Organic was not a new word to me; I
had been exposed to the concept at the Midwestern college
I attended. There were a few organic vegetable items in the
local store—I remember the grey tinge on some carrots.
They were not very appealing and hardly local.
My search for organic food in Chicago took me to grocery
stores all over the city. On one of my long shopping excursions,
I was disheartened to discover that I could not grocery shop
in my own neighborhood. There was only one grocery store,
and it did not carry organic food. On a visit to the produce
section, I was shocked to find Boston lettuce at $3 a pound
and heirloom tomatoes at $4.99 per pound. I quickly realized
that we could scarcely afford organic food. I also wondered
just how much effort it would it take to grow some lettuce
and a couple of tomatoes (little did I know the ultimate ramifications
of that simple question).
After some more research, my husband and I decided to convert
our backyard into what we called a “micro-farm.”
My in-laws, who grew up on farms in rural areas, offered technical
assistance. We grew lettuce, tomatoes, peas, squash, greens,
cabbage, onions and a few herbs.
||"Not realizing that I was asking
a big question, I stumbled across some articles that mentioned
genetically modified (GMO) food. However, when I examined
food labels, no mention of GMO’s could be found.
How could this happen, and why was I not made aware of
Then I decided to plant some corn. My father-in-law, Mr.
Willie, looked amazed and proclaimed with authority, “That’s
not going to grow.” I asked him why, and he responded
matter-of-factly, “Corn won’t grow here in Chicago.”
Illinois is the leading state in soybean production and the
second leading state in corn. One out of every four jobs in
Illinois is agriculturally related. This is the Corn Belt.
Surely, I thought, I can grow corn in Chicago. In defiance,
I planted my kernels. I learned a lot about corn and planted
two varieties, one hybrid and the other a native. The hybrid
took; the native variety did not. I learned a new word: tassel.
The tassel on the corn had to pollinate the silk, otherwise
no corn will grow. Imagine that! I had no idea! One of my
fellow gardeners told me to go out and gently shake my corn
plants. Wacky as it sounded, I went out and shook all 20 of
my corn stalks. By late August, Mr. Willie was the first to
tell me that my corn was ready to pick. My husband, Tracey,
had become a willing and even enthusiastic participant in
this urban garden experiment. One day out of the blue, Tracey
declared that he wanted to farm. Reluctant to give up all
I knew about urban life, I looked around and saw that we could
farm right where we were.
Sharing the wealth
Chicago is home to an estimated 70,000 vacant parcels of
land. Mayor Richard M. Daley harbors a dream of creating the
greenest city in the U.S. Well on his way to being the green
mayor, Daley has developed a number of innovative environmental
projects, including a roof-top garden on City Hall (where,
of course, it’s always good to have a friend).
Urban farming and rural farming share some similarities.
One, of course, is the goal to grow a product for consumption.
The fundamental difference between urban agriculture and rural
farming is land, specifically, the way in which that is acquired.
Urban options include partnership with a municipal agency
to gain access or outright purchase. The latter can prove
to be very expensive, as land values in urban centers such
Chicago are relatively costly. The lots that we acquire through
our nonprofit, the Institute for Community Resource Development,
we held in a trust by an organization called Neighborspace.
Neighborspace holds the title to lots, and we have a management
agreement for site usage.
As we developed the process to convert vacant lots to urban
farm sites, supporting the local economy was a central theme.
To achieve that end, we decided to at least try to use the
time and talent of local community members as we developed
the project. One of the ways the farm has consistently contributed
to the local economy has been through hiring folks in our
community to work on the farm sites. This work has included
anything from short-term contracting, such as renting a Bobcat
and hiring a driver to move compost, to hiring someone to
plant and harvest vegetables for market.
As hard as we try, sometimes it isn’t possible to get
everything from the community. In those cases, we have been
able to identify other community based organizations to help
us achieve our local economy goals. The inputs that make our
vacant lots suitable to growing healthy produce are similar
to those used to turn around abused farmland; they are simply
applied in different quantities. To begin, we purchase good-quality
compost by the truckload from a local urban farmer, Ken Dunn,
director of the Resource Center. The Resource Center collects
vegetable waste from local restaurants and turns it into compost.
In the Chicago area, Dunn is known as the father of urban
Before we could use the compost for the farm sites, we had
to break up the heavily compacted soil. This could not be
accomplished with a tiller; we used a backhoe to get the job
done. The owner of the backhoe is a community member who owns
a construction company.
University resources came in handy when figuring how to lay
out the beds on the lots. An Extension agent from the University
of Illinois helped us identify suitable plant varieties and
with spacing. Because our project is done organically, we
turned to local organic market producers to help with pest
management and production. David Cleverton of Kinnikinnick
Farms helped a lot by donating a couple of hundred tomato
seedlings and then coming out to the urban farm sites to help
us plant them.
We now have six lots and a refrigerated truck, and my husband
Tracey is well on his way to realizing his dream of becoming
a full-time farmer.
As we began working with urban agriculture, we realized that
while the organic issue was important to us; locally grown,
accessible food was even more so. Learning that our community
was somewhat of a “food desert” was a real eye
opener. There was very limited access to quality produce such
as organic. That our community did not desire this type of
food was one of the many myths we shattered along our journey;
that our neighbors were largely uneducated was another. Supporting
the local Austin Farmers' Market has been another way to build
up the local economy.
The urban farm has inspired us to provide healthy, local,
and sustainable food choices not only for our family but for
our entire neighborhood. The food that we grow on the urban
farm sites is sold at local farmers' markets and, seasonally
of course, at the neighborhood corner grocery store.
As we attempt to connect the food production of urban and
rural communities, we see an opportunity to not choose urban
over rural but to create a connection that highlights the
value of both environments.
“Creating a systems approach related to urban agriculture
is important,” says Orrin Williams, founder and president
of the Center for Urban Transformation. (Williams is an environmental
justice activist who has worked to close down toxic polluters
on the West Side of Chicago.) “Urban agriculture cannot
exist in a vacuum,” he says.
“This project goes beyond mere gardening because the
intent is to look at the comprehensive approach to the issue
of developing local economies—hiring locally, selling
locally. Using a food-system paradigm, we can see clearly
how urban agriculture can improve access to high-quality food
in communities like Austin.”
LaDonna Redmond is president of the Institute for Community
Resource Development, a member of the Illinois Governor’s
Advisory Council on Agriculture and Family Farms, and a 2003
Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Fellow.