#995: The Farm

October 19th, 2018

By an abandoned train track in West Englewood, there is a half-block of land filled half with smatters of dying grass, half with crackling concrete, but Kristin Miodonski doesn’t see that.

She sees what it could be. 

“This was until the early ’90s a Jewel,” she said, gesturing at the fenced-off land, vacant but for four wooden frames for raised garden beds and three rain barrels painted with koi fish. “As disinvestment was happening in the neighborhood, the Jewel left. No grocery store replaced it, and it was privately owned land until about a year ago. The landowner donated like three-quarters of it two us. There’s still one pocket of it over there that’s privately owned.”

It’s a cold day, and she’s dressed for it. Big stocking cap with a bobble on top, mittens where the fingers pull back. She gestures with a mittened hand and talks about picnic tables, soil remediation tests, possibly putting down a concrete cap or other barrier depending on the results of those tests to separate tainted chemical soil from the organic topsoil they’re going to cart in and lay down no matter what.

She talks about what it will take to make this plot of cracked concrete and abandoned grocery look like the greenery on the other side of the abandoned track — Growing Home’s Wood Street Urban Farm.

Growing Home is a USDA-certified organic, high-production farm. They grew 30,000 pounds of food in just under an acre of land last season, “so we go pretty intensely,” Miodonski said.

They got the initial plot of land in 2006 from the city for $1 and have turned it into a bustling urban farm of hoop houses (basically unheated greenhouses with clear plastic tarps instead of glass) and rows of vegetables. Their second location, adjacent across Honore Street, is technically owned by the NeighborSpace land trust, but they’ve used it since 2011.

The Jewel plot will be their third. So it’s time for the job training program to plan and dream.

That’s right, I said job training program. It’s not just carrots.

The cold day where Miodonski wears a bobble hat and mittens fell in about week 12 or 13 of the 14-week program. The farm is near-vacant, which is what they want at this point in the program. It means their farmers got full-time jobs.

“We’re not necessarily training farmers, because there aren’t ag jobs in the city of Chicago, or not many,” Miodonski said. ”Most people find jobs in the food industry. After working closely with vegetables for 14 weeks, they have a pretty good understanding of working with vegetables, food handling. Everyone gets ServSafe food handler certificates and, if they’re interested, they can have subsidized forklift training. It’s pretty much across the spectrum, from distribution, back of the house, delivery, working in catering companies, kitchens, restaurants, grocery stores. It runs the gamut.”

One or two people smile at me and Miodonski as they slap loose clods of earth with a hoe, or open a plastic flap to let a coworker into the bustling capsule of greenery inside.

“You can see under here we’ve got carrots, arugula, a bunch of salad mixes, spinach, Swiss chard,” Miodonski said in one of those plastic-wrapped hoop huts, lifting a heat-trapping tarp spread over the vegetables. “We’ve pretty much finished our summer crops — we have some peppers and a few tomato plants still going — but we’re really into our cooler-weather crops, which is a lot of greens, salad mix, carrots, radishes. Beets.”

The farm takes on 52 workers a year, divided between several cohorts of 15-20 people. During the first 10 weeks of the program, the day is split between farm and classroom; mornings turning earth, afternoons working on resumes, participating in mock job interviews, learning what it means to have transferable skills. The last four weeks have more time on the farm and more time for independent job search. The program participants are paid Chicago’s minimum wage — this year $12 an hour, set to go to $13 next year — whether they have a hoe or a pen in their hand.

Funding and space are what set the number at 52. More than 600 people expressed interest last year, found through local social services groups or visits to “re-entry summits” at correctional facilities. They’re looking for people who, for one reason or another, have been out of the workforce.

“It’s a real range,” Miodonski said of the workers. “Some have contact with the criminal justice system, some let’s say are experiencing housing insecurity or maybe had addiction issues in the past, some are maybe taking care of a family member or a child and so couldn’t be in the workforce, and then some people have just been out of the workforce for whatever reason for a while.”

The food industry is not only booming in Chicago, but is also an industry that traditionally cares less about criminal backgrounds, Miodonski said.

There’s also a small learning garden for school groups, mostly from the South Side, to spend a day learning green. “Anything that’s not eaten by kids during tours” gets donated to local soup kitchens, or used in cooking demos in Thursday’s farmstand at the West Englewood site. That’s one of the four farmers markets a week where Growing Home sells its organic produce.

On Fridays during the season, they go to the Inner-City Muslim Action Network’s Fresh Beats & Eats Farmers Market at 63rd and California. Saturday is the Green City Market in Lincoln Park and Sunday is the Logan Square Farmers Market.

“Green City and Logan Square, those are two premier farmers markets in the city, so we sell all the vegetables at market rate at those two markets and then for Thursday and Friday, the markets here, we sell at about 50 percent under market rate,” Miodonski said.

Those sales only cover about 6 percent of Growing Home’s operating costs. The rest is a traditional non-profit grants-and-donations route.

About 80 percent of the people who start the program finish it. About 84 percent of the people who graduated last year got jobs. It’s not a perfect number, but it’s not a perfect world. Saving lives is a lot to ask of a few radishes and some kale.

But to save any, to give ex-cons, ex-addicts and current homeless a job is amazing. To turn a $1 plot and the site of a torn-down Jewel into hope and subsidized forklift training is remarkable. Of all the things they grow on this little farm by the train tracks, a chance is the most difficult and precious to cultivate.

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