When Farm to Table is Just a Few Blocks Away

By Ben Feldheim | www.chicagobusiness.com | September 21, 2017

Jen Rosenthal walks beside a row of green pea tendrils bearing small, cloverlike leaves and thin stems. She kneels down to cut the top halves. Sugar snap peas would grow from their flowers if left to mature, but Rosenthal has found leaves from this particular type pack a lot of bright flavor. Place them in water after harvesting and they don’t deteriorate quickly like their siblings. It’s one of many lessons Rosenthal has learned in the two years she’s been growing produce at Legends Farm, a training site for urban farmers through the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest program.

“Some restaurants try growing these on-site, but without the rich soil they get too leggy and spindly,” Rosenthal said of the pea plants while standing in one of the lower drainage rows that run parallel between the more elevated crop rows at Legends. “We’ll let some blossom and harvest peas before they all come out to make more room for peppers and eggplants.”

Rosenthal cut the pea plants around noon on a Friday. Hours later, they showed up on plates at A10 Hyde Park, Billy Sunday and Old Irving Brewing. The greens didn’t have to travel far. Legends Farm isn’t in some rural enclave. It’s on Federal Street between 44th and 45th streets in Bronzeville within the grounds of the former Robert Taylor Homes, the onetime largest public housing project in the country.

Today, where chain-link fences once stood and concrete covered the ground, Legends Farm is alive and green. An acre of crop rows with an array of greenery sits just north of three hoop houses built of metal frames and plastic covering, where more delicate plants like tomatoes and eggplants gather size and strength before they are planted in the outdoor rows. The remaining space includes a three-quarter-acre production farm and a 40-foot wash/pack station. On the northeast corner of 44th and Dearborn streets is a community garden with 40 plots for residents of the adjacent Legends South apartment development to use.

Legends Farm supplies produce to restaurants and wholesalers in the Chicago area and provides hands-on training for graduates of Windy City Harvest’s nine-month apprenticeship in sustainable urban farming. Apprenticeship grads pitch business plans to Windy City Harvest and have two years to carry them out at Legends, with tools, supplies and support from Windy City staff. People who have worked in Windy City Harvest’s Corps program, designed to help ex-offenders find lasting employment, have also come through both the apprenticeship and incubator programs.

It’s going so well that next year, the farm is scheduled to begin moving just south of where it now stands to a permanent home within the development, says Angela Mason, associate vice president of urban agriculture at Chicago Botanic Garden and head of Windy City Harvest. It’s planned to be at least equal to the current space, or larger to include a farm stand and cold storage. “There’s a misconception of how much produce can be grown in an urban setting and that it’s not enough to be worth it, but this farm and our others are proof it can work and work well,” Mason says.

In fall 2012, the Robert Taylor space was a fenced field of compacted rubble with some grass and weeds. To convert the land for farm use, Windy City Harvest brought in 80,000 square feet of geotextile fabric used to strengthen soil and make it more stable. With the fabric in place, 3,000 cubic yards of compost was spread, followed by cedar and juniper timbers. The following spring, hoop houses and a production area were built. Legends opened with three incubator farmers that sold $33,011 in produce that year. In 2016, six incubator farmers sold $99,910 worth of goods.

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