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Matt Ryan looks and sounds the part of a lifelong farmer. He's lanky, soft-spoken, a little weatherbeaten, and clad in flannel—so even with that look being popular among urbanites right now, I'm still surprised that he's only been a full-time farmer since January. After volunteering for the Talking Farm in Skokie for the last couple of years, he became the urban farm's first official farmer, as part of its five-year plan for developing a sustainable teaching farm selling locally grown vegetables to area restaurants. He and others from the farm and from the Village of Skokie will be doing a session on the legal and logistical issues facing urban farms this Friday at the Good Food Festival (which I wrote about last week here), as part of its day devoted to food policy. I went to the farm on a clear, if still decidedly muddy, day last week to find out more about this emerging model farm on the near north shore.
The Talking Farm started in Evanston in 2006, with the fairly common goal of helping city kids, and others, reconnect with where their food came from—"getting back with the soil, getting dirty," as Ryan puts it. The plan was that they would grow food for local restaurants and provide guidance for homeowners who want to grow their own vegetables—essentially to be what rural America knows as an extension agent, helping farmers benefit from research and best practices. They built a demonstration garden in a park and one at Evanston Township High School that grows vegetables for the school cafeteria, but in terms of a larger permanent home, they ran into one fairly impassable problem—it was hard to find land for the farm in the area. Real estate is too valuable to do anything as arcane as grow on it.
They worked unsuccessfully on a piece of land in Evanston that turned out to need too much soil remediation. Ryan says that "right when they were about to fold up the operation" in 2010, the Village of Skokie approached them with the idea of a 20-year lease on a two-acre parcel of land on a nowhere stretch of Howard on the southeastern border with Chicago. (If you've ever had to pick up a FedEx package after hours, it's just east of there.) The only major piece of Cook County that's been farmed from settlement to the present day is Wagner Farm in Glenview, owned by that suburb today as a demonstration farm, but this was the next best thing, a long-ago horse pasture that had never been built on, except for the village-owned day care center next to it. Then covered with buckthorn and other weeds and invasive species, it was nevertheless a perfect parcel of never-developed land with a built-in audience of toddlers—and a village that actually wanted the farm.
That's the issue that much of the policy session will be about on Friday; many communities banned farming within city limits as they grew, so the first step in establishing an urban farm may be making it legal to have one. Even with a supportive local government, it was a long process of rezoning to establish the farm and working with the health department to make it possible to sell its produce, a very different process. As we walk the farm (at the moment, that only takes a few minutes), Ryan points out where they'll be building a washing shed for produce: "It's not your stereotypical washing shed—dirt floor, garden hose. But it means we'll have a state-of-the-art facility," because of more demanding regulations in an urban area.
Ryan grew up in Evanston and had no particular farm experience beyond backyard gardening, and he sums up his past career as "I was a warehouse manager, stuck inside all the time, counting nuts and bolts, making orders and talking on the phone all day. I just wanted to make a change." Seven years ago he watched a documentary about food and became interested in food policy and how it affects public health. "I felt like by growing tomatoes I could make a change. It was pretty easy, I didn't have to be a politician or go to med school, and I could have a multifaceted impact on environmental health. Food addresses a lot of issues." He started a community garden at his church, and volunteered with the Talking Farm. As he got more serious, he went through an urban agriculture training program, Windy City Harvest, at the Chicago Botanic Garden. He was the part-time farmer at the Talking Farm, doing side work in construction and odd jobs for local business (in other words, pretty much exactly like a full-time farmer), and as the five-year plan for the site kicks into gear this year, he came on full time to manage the development of the farm.
The farm has a 10,000 square foot demonstration garden, plus nine fields, each about 5,000 square feet, and land around them that will be planted with fruit trees. The demonstration garden is aimed at backyard gardeners planting a little of this and that, but four of the fields marked out for planting are in use already with row crops. Others will be cleared, graded, and brought into production over the next few years. One small section of land is covered with a tarp to warm the ground in anticipation of concrete being poured for a small classroom and meeting space.
Besides simply demonstrating organic production, the farm plans to experiment with different permaculture practices, such as hugelkultur, a method of gardening in which beds are built on top of buried logs from the property, which feeds the plants and improves microactivity in the soil. Livestock isn't part of the five-year plan (chickens are illegal in Skokie), but he hopes to add bees (which are legal) at some point. In addition to hosting lots of visitors, from toddlers to college interns, they sell their produce to Local Foods, and it ends up in several area restaurants including Farmhouse in Evanston, Boltwood and even a pizzeria, Village Inn, in Skokie. And they do what he calls a "mini farmer training program" for people who want to dabble in more serious backyard gardening—and maybe find their own piece of Skokie, or wherever they live, to grow things on. Ryan understands that process: "Somehow I got hooked on this growing food thing and what it does for people and the environment, and it stuck."