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A Growthful Enterprise on Perry Street

Look at the 1.7-acre plot of land at 57th and Perry streets in Washington Park, and you will see rolling mounds of wood chips and dirt on what used to be a school parking lot.

But Brandon Johnson and Ken Dunn see something more: the seeds of a self-sustaining, urban agriculture enterprise that will sell to high-end restaurants and local corner stores alike while employing neighborhood residents.

The Washington Park Consortium's Brandon Johnson (left) and Ken Dunn of The Resource Center envision a self-sustaining urban agriculture enterprise.

Gordon Walek

Dunn, president of the Resource Center, has co-produced this movie before: his 45-year-old organization has launched a total of five similar enterprises and currently has three others operating at Division and Clybourn, 70th and Dorchester, and on the site of Kendall College. He says others were discontinued when the land became too valuable, which he sees as a measure of success since his goal is to use vacant land in the most productive way possible.

“We’re not just demonstrating that it might be a good idea. The market is here,” said Dunn late last summer, as he prepared a portion of the Perry Street farm for planting. “As an economic development model, it stabilizes the quality of life until others say, ‘Hey, we’re near the lake, we’re near transit, I want to build a house.’ That’s the trajectory.”

For Johnson, executive director of NCP lead agency the Washington Park Consortium, the budding Perry Street City Farm won’t be entirely unplowed territory, either. His organization has developed two other community gardens in the past three years, the bounty of which has been mostly donated to local food pantries and given to neighbors in need.

Onions, collards and kale were growing at Perry Street Urban Farm in early August, with squash and tomatoes next on the menu, and then peppers and eggplant.

Gordon Walek

 The Consortium has been facilitating the Resource Center’s connections into the Washington Park community, Johnson says. “This has economic potential, but it’s not a skill set that existed” in Washington Park, he says. “To get that skill set into the community, we brought in the oldest urban farming organization in the city.”

LISC Chicago has invested more than $55,000 in the Perry Street and other agricultural projects in Washington Park, says senior program officer Sandra Womack. Johnson adds that the City of Chicago contributed the land, formerly occupied by a closed public school, and $250,000 for fencing and site preparation work. The Consortium holds the lease and has subleased to the Resource Center. “We couldn’t do this without the city donating the land,” Johnson says, adding that Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) was instrumental in that regard.

Once the farm is fully operational next summer, Johnson expects it will help to stanch at least some of the $20 million in food “leakage” out of Washington Park each year. That’s the net amount that’s spent outside the neighborhood by residents, a calculation developed by LISC/MetroEdge and measured category by category. “This will be an ultra-local food hub designed to meet the needs of the residents and to create a gateway into this emerging industry,” Johnson says. “The demand for food is outstripping the supply.”

Dunn plans a farm-stand at the east gate of the property, along Lafayette, that will sell mostly to neighborhood people as well as a handful who drive in from elsewhere. About a half-dozen people will work the farm year-round and an additional 10 to 15 in the summer, some of them schoolchildren home for the summer.

The Resource Center is subleasing the land from the Washington Park Consortium.

Gordon Walek

 “The jobs belong to the people from the neighborhood,” he says. “Primarily you want to market to people from the neighborhood. But you can’t pay a living wage and sell at prices that people can afford.”

That’s where the high-end restaurants come into the picture. Typically, the Resource Center’s farms sell about two-thirds of its produce to 25 five-star foodie establishments, where the clientele’s discriminating palettes appreciate produce that’s been picked earlier that day—particularly when grown in compost-only—and chefs are committed to buying local.

“Nothing compares in taste and appearance,” he says. “The restaurants ask, ‘How much can you produce for us?’ … Instead of just hoping the market is there, we make arrangements ahead of time.”

In addition to high-end restaurants, Johnson predicts the University of Chicago will become another potential source, given its stated goal to purchase 40 percent locally—and the lack of locally grown produce. “Illinois grows corn and soy, not to be consumed,” he says, adding that nearby restaurants in Hyde Park might also become interested.

The farm’s work will continue into the colder months through the use of hoop-houses and other protective devices and judicious choices of what to plant—for example, spinach can grow until January hardens the surface of the dirt too much, Dunn says. “The profitability falls drastically,” he says, “but this is about giving people jobs year-round.”

Dunn's organization has launched a total of five similar properties and has three currently operating; others have given way to housing as land values increased.

Gordon Walek

 The Resource Center’s farms often grow as many as 10 crops a year in the same bed, while adding about four inches of compost each year, Dunn says. The city built a 6-inch bowl of compact clay around the Perry Street farm, he says, which means that it “doesn’t leak. No rainwater leaves the area.”

In early August, onions, collards and kale were growing. Squash and tomatoes were up next, followed by peppers and eggplant. The Resource Center grows seedlings at a facility on the North Side of Chicago and plants them on-site only when they’re ready to sprout and be sold. Perry Street and the center’s other farms typically hold barbecues every weekend with grilled zucchini, eggplant or whatever’s growing that week.

“The chef puts a powerful sauce on them, the workers eat together, and the food is free to the workers,” he says. “The purpose is to introduce people to healthy foods—and how they can prepare them in a tasty manner—without lecturing.”

Local hiring will help lead to local knowledge about food, which will help to develop the market in Washington Park itself. Amanda Deisch, program manager at Washington Park Consortium, says her organization has been seeding the ground, holding a series of nutrition lectures last year titled, “What’s All the Fuss About Food?” This summer, kids worked in their gardens. “When you grow something yourself, it becomes instantly a lot more interesting,” she says.

“It’s about creating opportunities to taste it,” Johnson says. “It’s hard to compete with fast food if people haven’t tasted [fresh food]. Junk food, that’s what’s there. Some people have never had quality fruits and vegetables. It can be the first time a person has tasted a tomato. Then they ask why a tomato from the grocery store is not this good.”

The Perry Street Urban Farm should be fully operational in 2013.

Gordon Walek

The farm will need to form other partnerships as it integrates itself into the community, Dunn says. For example, a police officer was recently checking him out, wanting to know what he was doing on the site. “We’re on the same team,” he explained to the officer, given the farm’s mission to train young people and put them on a productive path. The officer seemed to understand, he adds.

Once Perry Street gets up and running, the Washington Park Consortium will decide whether to turn any of its other properties into similar operations, Johnson says. “Can we create some kind of vertically integrated enterprise?” he says. “The city has done affordable housing well. It could take the same kind of approach to affordable urban agriculture. … It starts by recovering our leakage, and then expanding the market. How do we get this into corner stores?”

“For the last 50 years, society has not taken care of its population. We do what communities have always done,” Dunn adds. “What has always worked is a local community with a local resource selling to local people.”

Posted in Health, Income and Credit-Building, Washington Park

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