Agriculture advocates want Chicago to recognize urban farming

Urban farming requires red tape

March 17, 2011

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Wood Street Farm on 58th and Wood in Chicago

Chicagoans who want to farm in the city have had to wade through a lot of red tape. There’s nothing in the city zoning code that formally recognizes urban agriculture.Advocates say vacant neighborhood land is ripe for harvesting vegetables. And that new produce sources would bring more food options to communities that are lacking. City officials and community groups are working on a zoning change that would allow more urban farming.

ambi: These row covers are something we use in the winter as added protection.

Harry Rhodes sidesteps a piece of ice to point out the leafy spinach growing in a hoop house.
 
ambi: outside walking the site
 
Rhodes is executive director of Growing Home, Chicago’s first certified urban organic production farm. It’s on 58th and Wood, near a viaduct, on less than an acre of land formerly owned by the city.
 
Last year, Growing Home harvested more than 10,000 pounds of food from that small site.
 
Bringing fresh produce to this food desert community took … patience.
 
ambi: outside fades
 
RHODES: We had to go through all sorts of hoops, bureaucratic hoops to try to recognize what we were doing.
 
It took three years for the Wood Street Farm to open in 2009.
It’s now one of a handful of urban farms in Chicago.
A group known as Advocates for Urban Agriculture is trying to formally change the city’s zoning code to make it easier for more of these enterprises to be developed.
 
RHODES: The bottom line is the food system is not good the way it is. Food is coming from thousands of miles away, and we can be growing a lot of it right in our backyard in vacant lots, in abandoned buildings.
 
A proposed ordinance is under consideration by the city council to allow for commercial gardening. City zoning officials say the zoning change could be a tool for revitalizing communities and redeveloping land that’s idled for years.
 
But there is a potential downside to urban farming.
 
Advocates don’t want large companies setting up shop without local input.
 
Orrin Williams is with the Center for Urban Transformation, a nonprofit that focuses on green issues.
 
WILLIAMS: A major issue for me is maintaining and ordinance that gives people who live in residentially zoned communities the opportunity to decide who their neighbors are going to be.
 
Many urban agriculture enthusiasts think Chicago could grow 50 percent of the food city residents consume. Other experts temper that number but agree that urban ag can
help end food deserts – areas lacking healthy options.
There’s not much statewide competition for growing carrots, lettuce or eggplant.
In Illinois, the majority of farmland is dedicated to corn and soybeans – not fruits and vegetables.
 
So chances are good for these urban farms to prosper.
 
Vegetable growers aren’t the only farmers eyeing this ordinance.
 
ambi: walking down the stairs to the basement of a plant
 
John Edel leads me down the basement of Plant Chicago, a vertical farming endeavor in an old meat packing facility nestled in the Back of Yards neighborhood.
 
He shows off tiny tilapia in bakery food totes that formerly held molasses.
 
ambi: We have four fish tanks here, which are divided by age …
 
Urban agriculture doesn’t mean cows and horses will be grazing on grass around vacant lots.
But farmers like Edel do want animals – like fish – to be included in the zoning change so they can be raised for local restaurants and supermarkets.
Right now he’s raising the fish to use their waste to feed plants.
 
EDEL: We’re very much a part of the urban agriculture community here. And I think that it’s very important that we all stand together to see that the city makes the right decisions to allow urban agriculture of all kinds.
 
Even if that kind is swimming.
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