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Feature Mon Nov 07 2011
By Christopher Weber
This past July, Rahm Emanuel held a press conference at a farm in Bridgeport. The much-praised urban agriculture nonprofit Growing Power had installed tidy beds and hoop houses in an abandoned truck depot, providing an appealing backdrop for the new mayor to announce an ordinance easing restrictions on farming within the city limits. "When we have all the farm operating, there will be 200 jobs at this site alone," Emanuel crowed.
In a saner media world, this pronouncement would have made big news. It's difficult to find 200 new jobs in any neighborhood these days, let alone in gritty Bridgeport.
But the 30 or so reporters standing before the mayor were not impressed. They wanted to talk about the latest City Hall controversy, namely, news that Emanuel's children would attend private school.
Much has been written about the abundant produce generated by urban farms, on sale at weekly markets throughout town. Yet as this wayward press conference suggests, the corresponding crop of jobs has gone unexamined. Looking around at the spry, young farmers in attendance, all sorts of unasked questions leap to mind. How many farming jobs are in Chicago? How much do they pay? What are the perks?
While it's important not to overstate the money involved--we're talking about gardens, not diamond mines--there is also no denying the economic promise of urban agriculture in Chicago and across the country. Research shows that more than half of all jobs in organic food and farming, and virtually all the new ones, are located in large metropolitan areas. At least two Chicago farms are in the works that would seek to mentor new farmers into business.
I went looking for these new farmers at Growing Power and other organizations to find out who they were and how they were faring.
It's a classic groundbreaking ceremony. A row of VIPs, among them Senator Dick Durbin and 15th Ward Alderman Toni Foulkes, are mugging with shovels. They scoop gravel and pantomime the sort of physical labor they hardly, if ever, do. Down the line is Fred Daniels, an unassuming giant of a man with huge, leathery hands. He grins as the others ham it up, and blends into the background as much as any fellow who is well over six feet tall can.
Daniels is part of the new wave of urban farmers. He's not a backyard homesteader or back-to-the-soil environmentalist. He's a lifelong resident of Englewood. After more than eight years in prison, he has returned to try to scratch a life from the common dirt.
Daniels remembers the day he started farming: April 12, 2010. Just out of prison, a caseworker had passed along a flier about how Growing Home teaches former offenders new job skills, particularly in farming. "I never knew the difference between organic food and industrial farming," Daniels recalls. "I never thought about farming as a job."
Not just anyone can apply for a job with Growing Home; they work exclusively with people who were once incarcerated. But the organization's two Englewood farms resemble many of the others that have sprung up across Chicago: hoop houses and raised beds, and a few acres under intense cultivation. In fact, Growing Home is spearheading an ambitious, perhaps far-fetched plan to transform Englewood from food desert to "food destination," a corridor of farms, markets, and greenspaces that would bring badly needed investment to this hard-pressed community.
Like the other urban farmers I met, Daniels has quickly taken to his new profession. As he explains, "I was never given an opportunity to work in a factory. I put in a lot of applications but never got a call. When I was given an opportunity to farm, I became passionate about it." He farms full time and is involved in all phases of the production, from planting to harvesting to delivering produce. For this work, he earns around $10 per hour, a modest wage that allows him to help support his grandmother, with whom he lives. Growing Home pays for Daniels' medical and dental benefits, and he accrues paid vacation days.
Daniels is not strictly wedded to farming; in theory, he has the lateral mobility to hop industries if necessary. Through a re-entry program, he earned a certificate in culinary arts and another in sanitation. He may end up in the restaurant industry. As he says, "If I'm not farming, I am going to work with food somehow." Yet at this point, he is more than content farming. "It's relaxing to farm," he continues. "You use muscles in your back, in your legs. You feel good after the day.
"Doing this work is more than just farming. You're a mechanic. You're a carpenter. There's a lot to it. I am passionate about what I do. I put care into it."
David Henderson thought he was done farming when he moved to Chicago in 2009. He had spent the past two seasons working on a small organic farm in heavily agricultural North Carolina. He loved the work, but yearned for a taste of life in a big city, with its music scene and abundance of young people. "I moved to Chicago not really planning on farming," he explains. "If I had stayed in North Carolina, where lots of people farm, I may not have pursued it myself."
After working at a Roscoe Village restaurant for several months, Henderson changed his mind. He borrowed money from his family to sign up for Windy City Harvest, a nine-month training program in urban agriculture run by the Chicago Botanic Garden. The experience confirmed his new career. "I got really into it and decided that farming was what I'd pursue indefinitely," he says.
Henderson graduated in 2010 and just finished his first season as a production assistant at City Farm on the Near North Side. He spends most of his time planting, harvesting, and delivering food, although he also oversees a large corps of volunteers. "It's the perfect place for me to work," Henderson enthuses. "A lot of urban agriculture is focused on educating people about food and the environment. But I don't see myself as a teacher. City Farm focuses on production, on growing as much food as they can and distributing their food as much as they can. So it's a great a fit for me."
The pay isn't great at $9 per hour, but Henderson hopes that health benefits will come soon. Fortunately, he is single and does not have a family to support. He supplements his income by doing recycling work two days a week on behalf of the Resource Center, the parent organization of City Farm.
Whatever urban farming lacks in monetary rewards, it makes up for in intangibles. Like Fred Daniels, Henderson is fueled by passion for his work and its potential benefits for society. "Part of our mission is to talk to people and hopefully inspire them by showing that this can be done.
"It's a lot of work. During the height of the growing season, we all end up working 50 or 60 hours a week. You have to deal with any type of weather"--not to mention often grueling labor. "At the beginning of every season, it takes a while to get back in farming shape," he admits.
Even so, Henderson finds the lifestyle highly agreeable. "Working with plants outside in the sun is really good for you. I'm tired when I come home but I'm also energized. Doing rewarding work, being in the sun, eating really good food does that."
Darion Crawford has large, habitually watchful eyes that, on an overcast fall day, are trained on seven teenage farmhands working hard not to fill the wheelbarrows before them. The youth interns, hired and paid by After School Matters, stop between every shovel load to send text messages. They complain and take breaks. They voice loud hopes that it will start raining and cancel this task.
Though only 22, Crawford has been farming for more than six years. He once held one of the same after-school internships as these teens. Now he's their boss, sort of.
Crawford is building a new farm on the Near West Side on behalf of his employer, Growing Power. The one acre plot, near UIC on Loomis Street, one boasted a swimming pool. Crawford's interns slowly buried it beneath a thick mattress of woodchips and are now building raised beds on top. Crawford cajoles and encourages the teens, but mostly he scolds them by watching disapprovingly and working harder than all of them combined. He spread their wheelbarrow-loads of woodchips far faster than they can bring them.
"They come in to work and complain that this hurts or that hurts," Crawford explains. "They just want to sit around. I have to tell them, 'I understand that this is just a youth program, but in a real job, nobody's going to pay you to sit around.' If you can't work, you got to go home and miss your pay for that day. This farm is theirs. It's just as much their baby as it is mine."
Growing Power has made a point of hiring interns from some of the city's toughest neighborhoods, including Cabrini-Green and Altgeld Gardens. To date, the organization has given internships to hundreds of youth, and hired 14 of them full-time. It stuck with Crawford after an arrest and two years of court-ordered supervision. He credits his boss, Growing Power's Chicago director Erika Allen, with mentoring him through these challenges.
"Some stuff in my life wasn't going so well then. Something about Erika, I just trusted her. She looked out for me. Any situations I'm having, she always works with me to try to keep me going." This steadfastness has given Growing Power a high level of street cred; Grist.org called it "the country's premier grassroots urban gardening program, and the organization's founder Will Allen has collected many accolades, including a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 2008.
Crawford might not have his job were it not for the just-slashed programs run by After School Matters. In 2005, as a junior in high school, he enrolled, "mostly because that was one of the only programs that paid you at the end of the semester." For 10 weeks of work, he received two $225 checks. Now, thanks to city budget cuts, the same 10 weeks of work yields only $100. Teens have to pay their bus fare and are fined for every absence. As a result, interest has withered, and Crawford's current team of interns is far smaller than hoped.
As a farm assistant for Growing Power, Crawford makes a modest salary, plus benefits. He and his coworkers receive weekly boxes of produce. When he's not building hoop houses or tending compost piles, he freelances as a party photographer. Drawing on these combined incomes, he is able to support three daughters. Like all the farmers in this article, Crawford does not have a college degree. But one day, he hopes to back to school and study child psychology so he can work with troubled youth.
"I really want to see this farm do some great things. I want to see it help the community and some of those kids." But first, he has to build the farm, and that means getting lots of work out of these interns. Some are simultaneously involved with gangs and farming, pulled two ways between the street and the soil.
"I tell them my story. I say, 'Look, I didn't know where I would be when I was your age. But I found something. This is a decent path.'"
Christopher Weber is a freelance journalist.
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.