Your NPR news source
Chicago urban farm

Volunteers work in a row of rainbow chard at Star Farm in Chicago.

Indira Khera

How is climate change impacting Chicago’s urban farms?

The South Chicago farm is a world of vibrant green. Tomato plants stretch toward the sun, next to neat rows of herbs and a small herd of goats. Butterflies flit between towering sunflowers.

Owned by the nonprofit Urban Growers Collective, the farm covers about seven acres on Chicago’s Far South Side.

The place seems to be thriving under the hand of farming director Malcolm Evans, who points out crops including cherry tomatoes, eggplants and sweet potatoes. But as we near a patch of peppers, Evans describes a threat to his work: extreme weather events, such as torrential rain or heat.

“If we get like a big heat wave…it impacts your crops,” Evans said. “If it’s too wet, things can’t grow... It’s a combo of both, but you need it to be consistent.”

Although coping with weather uncertainties is part of both rural and urban farming, urban farms are in a unique position. They provide horticultural crops — like fruits and vegetables — directly to communities that might not have access to fresh produce.

City farms are subject to contaminated soil and complex urban water access issues. And in Chicago, unpredictable weather has become far more common, according to Evans.

“May flowers, you know, April showers — that’s just what we grew up on,” he said. “But the last few years, everything has just been real inconsistent. The rain, the snow, in December the last couple years it was 50 degrees. That’s not normal.”

The inconsistency is echoed by Erika Allen, co-founder of Urban Growers and CEO of strategic development and programs.

“The amount of change I’ve seen in 20 years of farming consistently in the same city in different environments is radical,” she said.

Chicago urban farms

Malcolm Evans, left, and Erika Allen of Urban Growers Collective in Chicago.

Indira Khera

In the spring of 2019, Chicago received 16.36 inches of precipitation — the second-highest total on record, according to the National Weather Service. But just two years later, the city got 3.75 inches — the third-lowest spring amount recorded.

And the city’s climate has been getting warmer, according to the 2008 Climate Change and Chicago report. It noted that temperatures have risen by at least 2.6 Fahrenheit since 1980, and above-average annual temperatures have become common.

The number of days in Chicago above 100 degrees Fahrenheit could increase throughout the 21st century, according to the National Climate Assessment in 2018. By the end of the century, the upper estimate is 63 days.

Big cities such as Chicago are particularly vulnerable to the “urban heat island” effect — where features like pavement absorb more heat and increase temperatures. That urban heat means Chicago’s farms can sometimes end up warmer than farms elsewhere in Illinois.

Zachary Grant, a local food systems and small farms educator with the University of Illinois Extension, said because of this temperature difference, urban farms can provide a research opportunity, allowing rural farms to peer into their climate future.

“Being able to study some of these cropping systems in urban areas can provide this window into what the next 30, 40 years are going to look like in rural farming areas,” Grant said.

At Star Farm in Chicago’s Back of the Yards Neighborhood, staff members said this season started with unusually cold temperatures, making it hard for plants like sweet pea, kale and spinach to grow. The weather then swung much warmer, and seeds could not properly germinate. They share pictures of plant leaves crisped and burned in the sun.

On urban farms, heat stress has implications beyond crop health. Stephanie Dunn, founder and executive director of Star Farm, said on days of extreme heat, they’ve had to rearrange programming and work schedules to protect themselves and guests from health effects like heat stroke.

Dunn has observed another impact of warming temperatures: an extended growing season.

“I’ve been growing in Chicago for about 12 years now, and we used to have a very sharp deadline of Oct. 15, game over,” she said. “And now, we’ve been seeing a lot of season extension.”

She said milder weather has allowed the ground to stay workable well into November. This does enable Star Farm to serve its mission of providing food to the community for a longer period of time.

But Dunn said she believes the extended season also has allowed pests to remain in the soil for longer, as they aren’t killed off by early freezes. One example is the tiny Swede Midge, an invasive fly first identified in Illinois about five years ago. Dunn said the pests wreak havoc on vegetables such as broccoli.

To mitigate the effects of extreme weather, both Star Farm and Urban Growers use “hoop houses” — sheets of plastic draped over arcing supports. The houses create a controlled environment sheltered from extreme weather, and allow farmers to grow year-round.

Chicago urban farm

A field at the South Chicago Farm, owned by Urban Growers Collective.

Indira Khera

Dunn and Allen stressed a desire for data collection to keep track of their climate change observations. It’s something these busy urban farmers are just now finding the space to do.

“It would really help if we had more data collection around these kinds of things,” Dunn said. “The ability to track these changes, and communicate from grower to grower about our different needs and challenges.”

On the day WBEZ visited the South Chicago Farm, they were harvesting for the Fresh Moves Mobile Market, a farmer’s market on wheels that brings produce to schools, community centers and churches. They provide spaces for families to grow together, and offer mentorship and training opportunities for youth.

They are in the process of constructing an Urban Energy Campus in Auburn Gresham — complete with a massive anaerobic digester that will turn food waste into nutrient-rich compost for their farms.

Dunn said she believes urban farms are essential to our climate future. She said they help limit heat through sustainable land management, using vacant city lots to provide pathways for pollinators and spaces to boost biodiversity.

And she said the green space provides joy to community members.

“When people walk in the door of any of the garden sites, they immediately smile,” Dunn said. “Right away, people walk in and they start to shed a lot of other burdens and weights.”

Evans and Allen of Urban Growers met when he was 9 years old. He views farming as a safe zone, a place he said helped him heal from trauma and challenges in his childhood.

“I definitely know for a fact this type of work can help save people’s lives. Because I’ve done it, and it saved my life,” Evans said.

The crucial role urban farms play in their communities motivates growers like Allen to face the effects of local climate change head on.

“Not in a state of anxiety, but in a state of preparedness,” she said. “People are food insecure. … Why can’t we address all of those things and be climate prepared? Because it’s just being resilient.”

Indira Khera is a Metro Reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @KheraIndira.

The Latest
Noon Whistle Brewing’s timely offering is made with the real insects.
Two experts from the regional EPA office join WBEZ to tell us what we can expect. Reporter: Lauren Frost; Host: Melba Lara
In the last five years, Chicago has seen double the number of cyclists in the city.
Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health care compared to white Americans.
With her latest book, a Chicago author provides a go-to guide for new managers to foster a safe, inclusive and productive workplace.