Archives For urban agriculture

Cultivating Nostalgia

Jasmine Leonas —  June 30, 2016 — 7 Comments

The Garden’s head of urban agriculture took a trip to Cuba and reminded me of my culture’s resiliency and connection to gardening.

How do you farm when you have little to no resources? Cubans “inventan del aire.”

Literally meaning “inventing from air,” this is the philosophy that is required to get by in Cuba.

Angela Mason, the Garden’s associate vice president for urban agriculture and Windy City Harvest, traveled to Cuba to see firsthand how the farmers there create and maintain collective farms. These farms provide much-needed produce for a population that lives without what we’d consider the basics in the United States. The average hourly wage in the Chicago area is around $24.48. That’s more than the average monthly wage in Cuba.

“Before going, I didn’t understand why people would risk their lives getting on a raft and floating 90 miles,” she said. “But when you see the degree of poverty that some of the people are living in, it’s heartbreaking.”

Angie recounted to me the details of her trip; the people she met, all of whom were welcoming and warm, and the places she saw. She visited several farms just outside of Havana and another in Viñales, in the western part of the country.

PHOTO: Angie Mason, Fernando Funes and Madeleine Plonsker in Cuba.

Angie Mason, associate vice president Urban Agriculture/Windy City Harvest (center), poses with Cuban trip liason Fernando Funes, and Madeleine Plonsker, a member of the Garden’s President’s Circle who has visited Cuba many times and who helped Angie put the trip together.

Poverty in Cuba means the farmers there grow without supplies and tools that are standard here. But they are still able to create beautiful and sustainable harvests through ingenuity. For example, Angie asked one of the farmers she met what he used to start seeds. He showed her dozens of aluminum soda cans that he’d cut in half. One farmer dug a well by hand. He then used the rocks he dug out to build a terraced garden.

PHOTO: Isis Maria Salcines at her farmer co-operative, Organopónico Vivero Alamar in Havana, Cuba.

Isis Maria Salcines at her farmer cooperative, Organopónico Vivero Alamar, in Havana, Cuba

PHOTO: Finca Marta, Fernando Funes' farm outside of Havana, Cuba, in the province Artemisa.

A glimpse of Finca Marta, Fernando Funes’s farm outside of Havana, Cuba, in Artemisa Province

I asked Angie many questions about her trip and what she saw, because I relish every detail I can learn about Cuba, the country where both of my parents were born.

The reasons for Angie’s trip felt especially close to my own family’s heritage, because I come from a long line of farmers on both sides. My mother’s family had a farm in the province of Matanzas. My father’s side did as well, in the more rural province of Las Villas. Both properties have since been seized by the Cuban government, as was all private property after the revolution in 1959. Neither one of my parents has been back to visit since they moved to the United States as children (my father was just a few years old and my mother was 11) so the stories they can share are scarce. The only tangible evidence of childhoods spent in the Cuban countryside are a handful of faded photographs: my mom riding a horse when she was in kindergarten; my father in diapers and running around with farm dogs. And as each year passes, the memories of Cuba are farther and farther in past.

PHOTO: My mother and grandparents and uncle on the family farm in Matanzas province with my grandfather's most memorable purchase: his Jeep.

My mother and grandparents and uncle on the family farm in Matanzas province with my grandfather’s most memorable purchase: his Jeep

Two of my grandparents, both now deceased, had many stories to share with me as well. My maternal grandfather and my paternal grandmother were fixtures in my life and both often shared stories of their lives before the United States and growing plants and food in the fertile Cuban soil. It’s a talent that apparently never leaves a person, even if they change their country of residence, because both had beautiful backyard gardens at their homes in Miami.

My grandmother had a knack for flowers. The bougainvillea in her yard was always resplendent. Hydrangeas were the centerpieces at my sister’s wedding shower; months later the plant repotted and cared for by my grandmother was the only one that thrived. My grandfather leaned more toward the edible. His yard was full of fruit trees. Whenever he’d visit, he usually brought something growing in the yard: fruta bomba (more commonly known as papaya), mamoncillos, or limon criollo (a type of small green lime).

PHOTO: My grandfather and uncle, circa 1940s in Bolondron, Cuba.

My grandfather and uncle, circa 1940s in Bolondron, Cuba

Growing up, I always associated the cultivation of plants, whether flowers or fruit, as just a part of their personalities. Gardening was a hobby they enjoyed. While that was true, I realized later that it was also an activity that kept them connected to Cuba. As long as they could grow the plants they remembered from back home, that life was not completely gone.

My grandparents, as well as parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and pretty much most people I’m related to, have all tapped into their resiliency to make it as immigrants in the United States and adapt to their changed lives. The same personality trait that allows a Cuban farmer to grow vegetables without any tools has gotten my family through decades of living outside of Cuba. No matter the situation, members of the Cuban diaspora “inventan del aire.” It’s how people survive in Cuba, but it’s also how Cubans outside of the country get through exile.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

“Lights, camera…veggies!” In fall 2014, farmers at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest Youth Farm had an amazing opportunity.

PHOTO: Kids from Dyett High School Windy City Youth Farm 2015.

Kids from Windy City Youth Farm 2015 have fun washing vegetables to sell in their farm stand.

Filmmakers from New York came to Washington Park to meet the teens and record their experiences on the farm for a new documentary that seeks to uncover how we as a nation can make an impact on childhood obesity through creative education and empowerment.

The resulting film, The Kids Menu, will be shown at 6:45 p.m. on March 8 at Century Centre Cinema, 2828 North Clark Street, Chicago. The showing will be followed by a question-and-answer session with filmmaker Joe Cross. Get your tickets here.

The Windy City Harvest teens worked side-by-side with the producer, director, and cameraman to capture moving footage of their work at the farm and how plants have positively impacted their lives. One teen wrote the following:

A letter from a fan.

And tell about it they do in this film. The Windy City Harvest farmers tell just some of the inspirational stories about how kids are choosing a healthier path in The Kids Menu, which is from the same team behind Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead. You’ve heard what’s not working when it comes to nourishing a healthier, happier next generation—now, it’s time to find out what does work.

Click here to view the trailer on YouTube.

The Reboot team selected Chicago as one of its exclusive screening locations. So come see Windy City Harvest in The Kids Menu at 6:45 p.m. March 8 at Century Centre Cinema.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Something is growing in a food desert on Chicago’s West Side. A farm designed, built, and managed by Windy City Harvest for the PCC Austin Family Health Center began operation in the spring to help provide more of what the challenged Austin neighborhood lacks—ready access to produce that is fresh, affordable, and nearby—and enable the center’s patients to more easily fill the prescription for healthy living they receive in the examination room: eat more fresh vegetables. Spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, and other produce grown at the farm will be sold on-site.

PHOTO: Creating the raised beds at PCC Austin Farm last fall.

Creating the raised beds at PCC Austin Farm last fall

The project finds Windy City Harvest, the Chicago Botanic Garden urban agriculture and jobs-training program, partnered with an urban health provider, PCC Community Wellness Center, in paired missions of feeding communities and improving the health of those living in them. The Austin location is one of the PCC system’s 11 Chicago-area centers.

“We needed to come out of the four walls of our medical center and look at ways to give back to the community, get the community involved, explore ways to change the environment, and let people learn about gardening,” said Bob Urso, PCC president and CEO, explaining the project’s genesis. Funding comes from a $350,000 Humana Communities Benefit grant awarded to PCC Wellness Community Center by the Humana Foundation.

The farm’s groundbreaking took place in October on a grassy vacant lot a few steps from PCC’s modern LEED Gold-certified building at Lake Street and Lotus Avenue. Called the PCC Austin Community Farm until neighborhood residents choose a permanent name, the 8,000-square-foot site comprises more than 20 raised beds that include plots where eight families each year can grow food for their own use, a hoophouse (similar to a greenhouse), and a small outdoor seating area surrounded by fruit trees for gatherings and relaxation. Housing flanks the 50-foot-wide, fenced-in farm on two sides, with a parking lot on the third and more homes across the street. Trains rumble by on the Chicago Transit Authority elevated tracks a half block away.

PHOTO: Harvesting carrots.

Carrots: a late spring crop, and one of the first to come out of the PCC Austin Community Farm.

The farm’s seasonal coordinator is Windy City Harvest’s Brittany Calendo, whose role dovetails with her background in public health and social work. “It’s exciting to look at the farm as a away of promoting health and preventing disease rather than just treating symptoms,” she said. Plans include monthly workshops on nutrition and gardening for neighbors and patients led by Windy City Harvest and PCC. “Preventive medicine is some of the best medicine,” agreed Humana spokesperson Cathryn Donaldson. “We’re thrilled to be partnering with PCC on this important initiative.” Looking ahead, Urso said he will know the farm has achieved success when he meets patients who say they feel healthier and whose chronic conditions are under control after learning to eat better.

While it is among Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, “Austin is beautiful,” Tyrise Brinson said of the people in the place where she grew up and lives now. Although no one believes the project can by itself meet the area’s produce needs or change lifelong eating habits overnight, “It breaks cycles within the community,” Brinson said. “It’s the beginning of a chain of beautiful events to come.”


This post by Helen K. Marshall appeared in the summer 2015 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden. ©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Sure, they are fun pets and a good educational tool for your kids, as well as a great source of fresh eggs. But what do chickens have to do with the environment? There are a number of ways that having hens in your backyard can be environmentally beneficial.

PHOTO: Jennifer Murtoff with one of her pullets.

Jennifer Murtoff of Home to Roost, LLC with one of her pullets

Poultry Pest Patrol

Forget those nasty pesticides! Chickens are omnivores by nature and thoroughly enjoy chasing down plant-destroying insects like grasshoppers, grubs, beetles, and larvae. 

Betsey Miller and her colleagues at Oregon State University recently conducted a study with red ranger chickens to test the insect-finding power of poultry. They placed hundreds of insect pest decoys in leaf litter, placing some litter in the chicken pen and some outside. A day later, they examined both piles and recovered any remaining decoys. The results: all the decoys remained the control pile, but there were no decoys to be found in the chickens’ pile. The birds had gobbled them up! This study illustrates the chickens’ persistence in ridding an area of potential pests in a very short time.

Poultry pest patrols can be applied to flower and vegetable gardens. In addition, business enterprises are also reaping this benefit of keeping chickens: Earth First Farms, run by Tom and Denise Rosenfeld, is a local organic orchard that uses chickens as natural “insecticide.”

Biddie Biorecycling

Many eco-minded individuals tout a zero-waste trash stream as an important part of their green living plan: no materials leave the home as trash to be added to a landfill. Many people recycle waste, repurpose materials, and compost their vegetable matter. Chickens can be included in this schema as well, helping to reduce the amount of organic waste.

PHOTO: A mother hen teaches her chicks to forage.

A mother hen teaches her chicks to forage. By fir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.au [GFDL 1.2], via Wikimedia Commons

An adult chicken eats around 9 pounds of food per month. For the sake of argument, let’s say that 75 percent of that is layer ration (which I recommend for a healthy, balanced diet). That means each bird can biorecycle more than 2 pounds per month in vegetable matter and table waste. A flock of four birds, if fed a diet of 75 percent layer ration and 25 percent food waste, can eat more than 100 pounds per year in waste. If you take layer ration out of the equation completely, four birds can power through more than 400 pounds of food waste in a year. (As an aside, only fruit and vegetable matter should be fed to the chickens on a regular basis; too much pasta, dairy, bread, etc., can lead to obesity and health problems.)

The idea of chickens as biorecyclers was so appealing to officials in the villages of Pince in northwest France and Mouscron in Belgium that they are offering chickens to residents. Says the mayor of Pince, “To begin with it was a joke, but then we realized it was a very good idea. It will also reinforce community links: just as people look after their neighbors’ cats and dogs while they’re away, they’ll also look after the chickens.”

Fowl Fertilizer

All the natural waste byproduct, better known as poop, comes out the back end of the bird to the tune of 1 cubic foot of manure every six months. While chicken manure can be messy, stinky, and just all-around not desirable, this “black gold,” as some call it, is very high in nitrogen. However, it contains ammonia, which makes it “hot” compost: it needs time to break down into a usable format. When mixed with organic “brown” material such as grass clippings and leaves, the waste eventually decomposes into nitrites (which are toxic to plants) and finally into nitrates (which can be used as fertilizer). This chemical process can take anywhere from six to nine months. The mature compost can be added to the surface of a flower bed or worked into the soil. So a flock of chickens can turn all that vegetable matter from your kitchen into highly effective, free fertilizer.

PHOTO: Chicken feet at work! These feet are made for scratching—and ridding your yard of insect pests.

Chicken feet at work! These feet are made for scratching—and ridding your yard of insect pests.

Hens and Humus

While chicken manure contributes to your compost bin, the birds can enrich your garden in other ways—with their feet. Chickens are ground birds, with strong, sturdy feet that are meant for digging and scratching in search of food. Turn your birds loose in the garden or on a raised bed and they will till the soil with their feet in search of grubs, worms, bugs, tender shoots, and other tasty tidbits. All this activity will turn leaf litter and dead biomatter into the soil while providing an easy aeration solution. If your soil is in need of a boost, put your chicken to work. When the birds have worked over a garden plot or raised bed, it will be tilled and ready to plant!

Environmental Egg-sistence

Envision an agribusiness egg farm with stack upon stack, row after row, of hens in cramped cages. You’ve no doubt questioned the system and its humanity and sustainability. Chicken houses produce tons of manure per year, and the hens who live in these barns may be force molted to keep up egg production by withdrawing food and water. These barns are considered concentrated animal-feeding operations, and the U.S. EPA cites them as being “a significant source of water pollution.” In addition, the air around these farms “can be odorous,” and the nitrogen can leak into bodies of water, causing algal bloom and destroying the natural habitat.

PHOTO: Eggs in straw.

The best benefit of backyard chickens—the eggs!

Backyard chickens provide a better alternative to the excessive environmental impact of factory farming. Compared to a factory farm, backyard hens produce a fraction of the manure in a much smaller footprint. You can handle their waste properly, returning it to the environment in an eco-conscious manner. If the coop is kept well, there will be little to no odor. In addition, the birds will also be happier and healthier. Their eggs, too, will contain better nutrition due to the birds’ ability to forage and eat a varied diet.

Chickens, like most critters, are at their happiest when doing what comes naturally to them—eating veggies and bugs, digging in the dirt, pooping, and living a happy, carefree existence on the open range. So consider adding these delightful birds to your garden as part of an eco-conscious living plan. You’ll be thanked with hours of entertainment and the best eggs you’ll ever eat!

Join us on World Environment Day, Saturday, June 4, 2016 and come learn more about keeping backyard chickens!


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Two years ago—before his life took a head-spinning turn—Fernando Orozco was a 19-year-old juvenile offender in the Cook County Sheriff’s detention center. Recently, he completed work as a grower and crew leader on the Kraft Food campus in Northfield, Illinois, as part of a 13-week stint in Windy City Harvest Corps, an educational and transitional jobs program run by the Chicago Botanic Garden.

PHOTO: Fernando Orozco.

Fernando Orozco at the Kraft Makers Garden

“I never thought I’d have a job like this where I have my own site and, not only that, the responsibility of caring for a crew of other guys,” Orozco said, on a break from work last summer in the 8,000-square-foot Kraft Makers Garden.

His crew included young men, ages 17 to 21, in the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice system. The team grew enough tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and other produce to fill 55 boxes a week for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program. Other crops included cherries, beets, swiss chard, and watermelon, made pretty with plantings of scarlet runner beans and firecracker flowers, all grown in full view of Kraft employees as they worked out in the company gym. Produce from the site is donated to WIC centers and food pantries in the networks of the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

Orozco became interested in farming at the sheriff’s detention center, where he learned basic growing and organic practices in a program run by Windy City Harvest, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban agriculture education and jobs-training initiative. He went on to complete the nine-month Windy City Harvest Apprenticeship program, earned a certificate in safe and sustainable urban agriculture, and interned at locations including chef Rick Bayless’s home garden in Chicago.

The Windy City Harvest Apprenticeship program attracts a diverse group of students, including young adults with a history of incarceration and those with significant barriers to employment. “Just because they’re checking that box that says ‘felony offense’ doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re bad people,” said Angela Mason, director of Windy City Harvest. “They just need someone to give them a chance and support them through those changes. ”

Fernando and WCH Crew work at Kraft

Using organic methods and operating on eight acres at a dozen locations throughout Chicago and Lake County, Windy City Harvest students annually grow about 100,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables, serving an estimated 143,000 people.

Now Orozco tells the former juvenile offenders with whom he works that they can leave their past behind. “I’m not the smartest person in the world,” he tells them, “but I saw an opportunity and I took it, and the same opportunity is happening to you guys. Are you going to take advantage?”

Orozco hopes to run his own farm some day. “But, for now, I’d be happy if I were here, doing the same thing, just perfecting the craft, growing food and helping people, growing people,” he said. “I can’t ask for a better job.” 


This post was adapted from an article by Helen K. Marshall that appeared in the winter 2014 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org