Monday, July 15, 2019

On the cutting edge of 21st century agriculture

A Farm Grows in Chicago

by Eric Diekhans

“Like a seed, good things grow with nourishment and encouragement.”

Rows of seedlings sprout from rich, black loam. Farmers with dirt-encrusted nails survey the bounty harvested from the land. City folks line up at a farm stand to fill bags with fresh, nutritious produce. These aren’t scenes out of Norman Rockwell’s oeuvre. They take place every week against a backdrop of concrete and skyscrapers on Chicago’s near north side at the Chicago Lights Urban Farm.

Chicago Lights at Fourth Presbyterian Church is on the cutting edge of 21st century agriculture. Its Urban Farm ministry began in 2003 as a community garden on an abandoned basketball and tennis court. Vicky Curtiss, Associate Pastor for Mission at Fourth Church, said, “The land was originally bought by the church for a community center connecting neighbor to neighbor in a gentrifying community. When the church couldn’t get funding, the plan shifted to a vision of neighbors from different backgrounds working side by side.”

Chicago Lights Urban Farm
Located near what was once a large public housing complex, the area around the Urban Farm has rapidly gentrified over the last two decades, bringing low income and middle class residents in close proximity. Where there was once a food desert, a large grocery store has opened. But, according to Rev. Curtiss, people of color often don’t feel comfortable shopping there because of lingering racism. That makes healthy produce from the Urban Farm a valuable resource.

The original garden quickly expanded to become a multifaceted mission program that is, according to Director Natasha Holbert, “dedicated to cultivating an engaged community of youth and adults.” Teens from the surrounding neighborhoods learn all the essentials of urban agriculture, including watering, seeding, pruning, and harvesting. Young adults work at the on-site farm stand, which offers everything from greens and cucumbers to beets and flower bouquets.

“The garden teaches life skills,” said Rev. Curtiss, “and trains youth so they can find jobs in other urban agriculture endeavors, or in the food and hospitality industries.”

Adults also benefit from the Farm. Neighbors and organizations in a five-block radius around the Farm can tend their own plots. Being part of the Farm community is an essential part of the Urban Farm’s mission, so gardeners are expected to volunteer throughout the growing season.

For Rev. Curtiss, the Urban Farm is about economic, social, and environmental justice. “It’s about promoting health and nutritious eating. It teaches care for our bodies and for the earth.” The farm fully connects with Fourth Church’s mission focus on care for creation. When the church session recently approved a composting initiative, it was the perfect extension of Urban Farm’s genesis when compost was laid over the original asphalt.

Rev. Curtiss sees inspiration for this hands-on care for creation in Psalm 8 . “You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.”

Eric Diekhans is editor of Earth.

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