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Imagine having a vegetable garden nearby. (That’s not hard in Evanston.) Now imagine having a really big (like, three-acre) vegetable garden nearby. And imagine that this garden also features an orchard and fields of herbs and a building with a kitchen and meeting spaces. And in this garden, there are some bee hives, E-i-e-i-o-
Wait. That doesn’t sound like a garden. That sounds kind of like a farm.
Precisely, say the founders of The Talking Farm, an Evanston not-for-profit that’s working to establish a small working farm on land owned by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD). After several years of planning, the city of Evanston is in the process of negotiating an agreement with the MWRD and Skokie that will permit The Talking Farm to dig in on a site north ofHoward Street
and east of McCormick along the North Shore Channel, possibly this year.
“Our mission is definitely about growing food,” says Linda Kruhmin, Farmer-in-Chief for The Talking Farm. “But it’s also about education – teaching people where their food comes from and what it actually takes to produce food.”
To those of us who think we know where food comes from – the grocery store, of course – the idea of squeezing a farm into a vacant city lot may seem odd. But mini-farms in high-density areas are part of a growing trend called “urban agriculture” that’s catching on nationally.
Urban agriculture has multiple aims. One is to bring more fresh fruits and vegetables to urban communities, particularly lower-income neighborhoods where access to unprocessed foods can be limited. Another aim is to reduce carbon emissions by growing food organically and consuming it locally. Yet another goal is to create jobs through small farming businesses.
The Talking Farm concept sprouted in discussions of the Evanston Food Policy Council, a local citizens’ group focused on food, health and sustainability issues. Kruhmin identified a potential farm site by studying aerial maps.
The land she found is owned by the MWRD but lies within Skokie city limits. The Talking Farm has been in negotiations with Evanston, Skokie and the MWRD to gain access to the land for many months.
The site has lain dormant for many years, which is both good news and bad. The good news is that the land hasn’t had any commercial use for about 50 years. Soil tests, which probe 12 feet below the surface, must be conducted to determine soil composition and the possible presence of any toxins. The bad news is that the site is overgrown and rubble-strewn.
Trees growing along the south perimeter of the site will be saved. That section will be “agriforest,” or a wooded area under cultivation with food bearing plants that can withstand some shade. Fruit and nut trees could be planted there, plus bramblefruits such as raspberries and blackberries, and shade-tolerant herbs, such as ginseng and wild ginger. Currently, the entire plot is infested with buckthorn and other invasive plant species that must be eradicated.
The northern two acres of the site receive full daylight, making them appropriate for growing vegetables. In addition to vegetable beds, The Talking Farm will install several “hoop houses” to extend the farm’s growing season to 11 months out of the year. The main structure, located at this end of the site, will house a demonstration kitchen, classrooms, greenhouse, meeting rooms and administrative offices, as well as a “head house,” where produce will be cleaned and prepped for sale. This structure will be intensely energy-efficient, incorporating solar panels and thermal walls plus a water collection roof and cistern for irrigation.
It could be one to two years before the farm is fully productive, says Kay Branz, The Talking Farm president, because time is needed to clear the land and improve the soil. However, some crops can be produced immediately using raised beds and straw bales. Any produce the farm generates will be sold locally through farmers’ markets or an on-site farm stand, or to local restaurants. The farm will eventually operate an internship and jobs training program for youth, modeled after the Chicago Botanic Garden‘s Green Youth Farm initiative.
A fund-raiser to benefit The Talking Farm will be held in Evanston on Monday, October 19, 2009. For more information, visit www.thetalkingfarm.org.
Karen Terry is a board member of Th Talking Farm, a non-profit organization that is committed, like the Evanston Food Policy Council (EFPC), to ensuring a safe and diverse regional food supply and fostering awareness of healthy food choices. For more information about EFPC, call Debbie Hillman at (847) 328-7175.