A Glimpse into Urban Ag in Chicago

I am mid-way through my flight back to San Francisco from O’Hare when I couldn’t help but pour over all the notes I jotted down and photos I took of what I saw, smelled, ate and experienced in the course of 9 hours. I couldn’t help but think that Chicago exuded a sense of closeness in the urban ag community and I was given a one-day invite into it.

I was in Chicago for work but wanted to maximize my free time with a self-guided ag tour through a few urban farms and gardens. Having compiled the UAT news digest for over six months, I was conscious of the ag scene and there was an intriguing exploratory aspect of being on the ground and uncovering it for myself. My previous experience in Chicago was limited to activities within the Loop. It was time to venture out and explore.


The Edible Gardens at The Farm Zoo

I started my day at the Edible Gardens in the Farm Zoo within Lincoln Park. In part with the Green City Market initiatives, the Edible Gardens is a learning garden for school children and the general public. The garden attracts close to 10k visitors every growing season. Fun fact: the Farm Zoo has the highest ratio of scientist per livestock count in the country.

With close to 300 volunteers, on this rainy Saturday morning, I met Stephanie and Jill. In the garden’s 10th growing season, they had sun gold tomatoes and lemon cucumbers to share with me.


Fresh picked tomatoes and cucumbers

The dedication, commitment and resiliency of the Edible Gardens is most visible by the fact that the garden is re-tilled at the start of the planting season every year because during the winter months, an ice rink is built on top of the gardens. <photo of Edible Garden pano> As I was heading out to my next stop, Stephanie was excited to hear that one of my stops is at a garden she worked at previously. As I described my planned visits for the day, her enthusiasm and excitement for me confirmed that I was on the right.

Driving over to the south side from Lincoln Park, I saw the cityscape and Lake Michigan diminish in my rear view mirror. I approached dense and diverse suburban areas scattered with seemingly desolate pockets of long forgotten warehouses and vacant lots.


The Plant at 1400 W 46th St

I pulled up to The Plant, a 94,000 sq ft warehouse in the old stockyards neighborhood of Chicago. It is located on a dead-end block behind a strip mall that included a Walmart and Marshall’s. Smoke stacks from nearby processing plants and immovable freight trains littered my view of the near distance.

The seemingly deteriorating exterior ignited my natural curiosity and without regard for the safety of the building (Will they provide hard hats?) I entered The Plant. I was greeted by a friendly farmer’s market and the delicious scent of baked goods creeping in from the food vendor area in the adjacent room. As I waited for the tour to begin, I noticed Bike a Bee right away. I read about them when I was compiling the digest back in September.


Local “bike-sourced” honey

I quickly learned that the local honey I was sampling was indeed very local. They have 43 beehives scattered across Chicago neighborhoods, 13 of which were right above us on the roof of The Plant.

The tour began in the aquaponics area or lab rather, in the basement. The air was moist and space was well-light by boldly fluorescent lighting. The walls were humming with a faint sound of something industrial not too far away. As our guide, Nate described to us the concept of an open source, closed loop, circular economy, I couldn’t help but look around. I looked at the seed germination area in the corner next to the enormous tilapia containers and opposite the swiss chard growing in hydroponic beds. Beyond that was a construction zone, ripe for individuals to build and innovate.


Circular economy discussion at The Plant

The Plant, the non-profit, is a tenant within The Plant – yes, it’s confusing. Their goal and mission are slightly different, or a subset rather, of the larger organization’s which housed 14 small business tenants above.

The Plant was created in 2010 to promote an ecosystem where the outputs of the inhabitants are fed back into the system as much as possible. For example, the spent grain of the beer brewer goes back into the aquaponics system as fish food. There is a large anaerobic digester in the back of The Plant which will soon be turned on to accept 30 tons of organic matter to turn into fuel. They are also repurposing some old pipes within the facility to produce algae as another source of fish food.


Aquaponic swiss chard

Throughout our tour, we peeped into the inner workings and creative spaces of a  beer brewer, bakery, coffee roaster, and cheese maker. We heard about other organizations like Urban Canopy, an international spice trader and a shrimp farm operation.

We checked out a non-renovated part of the building to get a feel for what the builders had to work with back in 2010 when they first started. The premise behind not doing an entire teardown is that the building has pretty good bones. Being the old Peers canning facility, Bubbly Dynamics wanted to retain and reuse as many of turn of the center design components as possible while making sure everything was up to code.

After scarfing down a delicious meat pie made in the bakery upstairs, I was off to my next farm: the Iron Street Farm (an indoor and outdoor operations for Growing Power). After crisscrossing through what seemed to be an infinite number of railroad tracks and getting stuck at the intersection of a halted freight train (What is a city girl to do? I’ve never encountered this before), I found my way to the Iron Street Farm.


Repurposed farm headquarters for Growing Power

To my dismay, there was an event taking place and the tour was canceled. I poked around the premise and looked through the fence and covered greenhouses as much as I could.
Growing Power member named Kinesha showed me the garden in the back and advised I’d come back again for the tour – it’s worth it.


Greens at the Iron St Farm

Recalling my conversation with an urban grower at the farmer’s market back at The Plant, she advised I take a look at where she was growing her produce – at Patchworks Farm. I headed over and discovered a half-acre farm on the west side of Chicago.The low fence made it inviting. It was lush, not sure if it was because it had just rained but I saw everything from kale to sunflowers to bees and just beautiful greenness in almost every square inch of this plot. There’s something idyllic about the cohabitants of the bees and good pests and chirping crickets and.. was that a frog I hear?

Getting lost in the sounds and sights, the roaring braking of a city bus behind me brought me back to the realization of where I was, in the middle of a city, with the downtown skyline in view and four lanes of traffic behind me. It felt like being in two places at once.

As I think about my day right now on the plane, I realize it’s all interconnected. The community within Chicago and within our urban environments. For the past few months I’ve been formalizing a plan to efficiently capture this data and the result is in the City Profiles Initiative. More details will be released soon, but if you cannot wait another minute, send an email to me at alice@urbanagtech.com.



Looking into Patchwork Farms


Events originally took place on October 1, 2016.

Leave a Comment