When farm to table is just a few blocks away

Jen Rosenthal - Photo by John R. Boehm

Photo by John R. Boehm Jen Rosenthal

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.

RESTAURANTS HUNGRY FOR HARVESTS

Rosenthal, a former graphic artist who got into farming while trying to grow a perfect tomato, calls her incubator business Planted Chicago. She sells to restaurants including Kimski, Entente, Lula Cafe, Big Jones, Cellar Door Provisions in Chicago and Long Grove-based caterer and meal delivery service White Oak Gourmet. She also operates a whole other eighth of an acre solely for Folkart Restaurant Management spots A10, Billy Sunday, Old Irving Brewing and Lucky Dorr. She developed a subscription system with Folkart that helps the group tailor choice of crops, quantity, and timing for best size and quality for each of its restaurants. Old Irving Brewing, which serves American comfort food, gets more of the available shishito peppers from the lot, while A10, with an Italian and French focus, gets more tomatoes and beets. Because of Chicago's erratic weather, some crops become available sooner or later than planned. Rosenthal frequently checks two weather apps and texts her customers as soon as she sees a shift.

Planted Chicago "allows us to customize our menus in a unique way and at a quality level that would cost a whole lot more from other farms and markets," says Matthias Merges, chef-owner of Folkart. "We love heirloom tomatoes and use a lot of them in our bar program at Billy Sunday. It would be very cost-prohibitive to go through 2 tons of 20 varieties of heirlooms a season if we weren't working with her." The restaurant saved 11 percent on produce costs in 2016 over 2015, Merges estimates.

For the other restaurants, Rosenthal offers a list of items she plans to grow. Over time, she's developed a sense for which chef wants which ingredients, and texts them about changes in availability.

"It's an example of South Side land being utilized for good," says Won Kim, chef at Kimski in Bridgeport, who orders greens, herbs, root vegetables and other offerings weekly from Planted Chicago. "This farm is taking a big step towards positivity and productivity for both the area and the whole city. Jen brings the farmers market to you. You know it's real when you get her product."

John R. Boehm
Photo by John R. Boehm

Shortly after Windy City Harvest's apprenticeship program began in 2008, Mason says, students started asking the same question again and again: "We want to start a small farm—could you help us find land?" In 2011, Mason and Kelly Larsen, director of operations at Windy City Harvest, started investigating urban incubator farm programs, visiting locations in Massachusetts, Washington and California. With research in hand, all that remained was space to build; not an easy find in Chicago.

Around the same time, Richard Sciortino, principal of Chicago's Brinshore Development, was looking for help managing a community garden for nearby residents of Legends South. Mason offered to do it if Windy City Harvest could also have space there for the incubator farm. With grant funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for beginning farmers, Windy City opened its largest of 12 farms in and near Chicago, at 87,000 square feet. Other farms are on the roof of McCormick Place, in West Garfield Park, on the grounds of PCC Austin Family Health Center and at the Arturo Velasquez Institute, a satellite campus of Daley College that partners with Windy City Harvest on the apprenticeship program.

Windy City also runs wholesale production separate from the incubator spaces on three-quarters of an acre supervised by Legends Farm coordinator Paul Krysik. Selling to wholesalers such as Midwest Foods allows for greater production at Legends that doesn't compete with the smaller incubators. And it offers a safety net for incubators to sell crops when they grow more than their customers can take.

"You might call a restaurant and say, 'I have 500 pounds of eggplants,' and they can only use 100 pounds," Mason says. "Our wholesale buyers can take those other 400 pounds, and the risk is lowered." During monthly meetings, Krysik and more experienced incubator farmers like Rosenthal mentor and troubleshoot growing and marketing issues that arise.

EXTENDING THE SEASON

The farm functions mostly between March and early November, but thanks to the hoop houses, Legends also can grow food in winter. This year, Krysik was harvesting spinach in early March.

Farmers at Legends have to work 50 hours of community service per season for each eighth of an acre they farm, including helping Legends residents with the community garden or holding workshops on cooking or growing crops. Residents also will stroll by and ask what the farmers are harvesting that day. "People around here love it," Krysik says. "They'll ask for a bunch of greens, and incubators will sell it to them right over the fence if they have it."

Windy City Harvest hopes to develop an advanced incubator farm with more space to grow. The idea is after two years at Legends, an incubator farmer could continue and expand their business plan on a larger plot for five years.

"Without this program, I wouldn't have been able to test the model and see in reality where I could take this business," says Rosenthal. "Urban farming like this is still in its infancy, and the support that Windy City Harvest gives is unmatched."

Before it was a farm, this field at the former Robert Taylor Homes was compacted rubble with some grass and weeds. - John R. Boehm
Photo by John R. Boehm Before it was a farm, this field at the former Robert Taylor Homes was compacted rubble with some grass and weeds.