City Farm

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I went to the city of Chicago to go to a farm. Yes, you are reading this right. Just a little west of downtown Chicago at Clybourn and Division streets there is a farm called City Farm. City Farm is run by a nonprofit organization that does farming and recycling. They lease vacant lots for free from the city of Chicago usually in some blighted areas and turns these lots into green oases of food production in the middle of a concrete jungle. The lease is good until the city decides they want to sell or have a use for the land. The Farms are self-sustaining farms and raise chickens and vegetables using all organic methods and then sells what they produce to local residents and restaurants of the area. It is a great concept that is also happening at other major cities around the country.

City Farm at Division and Clybourn

I found out about city farm from one of my regular train passengers named David who follows my farm blog and works for the organization that operates City Farm. I told him this would be a good post for my blog and something my readers would be interested in. He told me he could arrange for us to meet Nick the Manager at City Farm and get a tour of the farm. 

Nick Peterson manager of City Farm

My wife and I went to the farm on a Saturday morning and we were immediately impressed with the whole operation. The one acre lot was just packed with all kinds of different vegetable plants, and it was so well-organized and neat looking with all the plantings in straight rows and weed free. I wished my postage size garden looked so good. We met with Nick who was very friendly and informative and he gave us a well guided tour and we could tell he took pride in the farm.

One planting strategies of City Farm is to put plants that need lots of water all in the same area, like the many different varieties of lettuce they plant at City Farm

 Nick told us this was one of three farms that they have in the city of Chicago and this farm was their first that started in 2006. He said this area was right next to the Cabrini Green housing projects that the city just finished tearing down a few years ago. For those of you who are not familiar with Chicago, the Cabrini Green housing projects were at one time one of the most unsafe parts of Chicago. The cops were even afraid to go into these projects because of the high crime rate and often times they were shot at when they tried. The area has really improved since City Farm was first started there.

I asked Nick how many full-time employees City Farm has? He said “we have five full-time employees that get a wage, but the farm really depends upon dozens of volunteers”. He said “there is such an interest in self-sustaining farming and such a hunger to learn  how to grow your own food we have no problem getting enough people to volunteer”. On any given day they have 10 volunteers along with the full-time staff working at City Farm.

Some of the volunteers weeding around the many tomatoes plants at City Farm. The many varieties of lettuce and tomatoes they grow on the farm are their biggest cash crops.

The farm starts all their own plants from seed and they start seeding around March 1st in one of three hoop houses they have on the property.

One of three hoop houses they have at City Farm

They start the seeds in a soil block, these are little blocks of soil made by pushing down a soil blocker tool into a compost pile and then a seed is placed in each soil block. I thought it was a great little tool to use and will have to invest in one of these when we start to farm.

This is a soil block and is how they start their seeds.

As you can see from the picture above the soil blocker has a little nipple in each compartment that makes an indentation in the soil block to plant your seed. You can get your own soil blocker tool at  at Johnnys Seeds   Or if  you want a more economical version and make your own soil blocker go to Annies Kitchen Garden  a garden blog I follow. When Niki and I start to farm we plan to build our own hoop house and I have found a great site that shows you how to build a hoop house  for about 500.00.

The hoop house where they start the seeds is heated by a wood stove.

They made their own wood stove from salvaged material.

Another inexpensive and innovative idea they had for trellises for their tomato plants in the hoop houses is to have twine that is attached to the hoop house frame from above and then staked to the ground next to the tomato plant and as the plant grows attach the plant to the twine using clamps that are made for that purpose.  I think you could also use plastic zip ties if you keep them loose on the plants.

This is how they trellis their tomato plants in the hoop house and the picture below is how they clip the plants to the twine. They sell thirty varieties of tomatoes as well as beets carrots, arugula, kale, swiss chard, and many other gourmet lettuces. They also sell garlic, herbs, and many more vegetables.

The farm also sold farm fresh eggs until just a few weeks ago. Nick told us a raccoon got into their chicken pen and coop and killed all 17 chickens. He said until recently they have not had many problems protecting the chickens, The chicken pen was not enclosed at the top and the raccoon climbed the fence to get to the chickens.  They plan to buy chickens again next spring and enclose the pen completely.

They empty chicken coop and pen.

They don’t use any chemical fertilizers and amend their soil with their own composted material.

They compost restaurant trimmings, vegetable scraps, woodchips, and chicken manure.

They prep all the vegetables on site to sell to the public and restaurants.

Nick showing Niki the area where City Farm preps their vegetables

What a great example of an organic, self-sustaining farm and we got a lot of great ideas for making our own farm a more sustainable operation. As you can see, it doesn’t take a lot of land to make a living at farming if done the right way. If you would like to see City Farm or be a volunteer please go to the City Farm web page to see their video and tell them Niki and Gordon sent ya from Milligan’s Gander Hill Farm.

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About Gordon Milligan

I am a conductor for a commuter railroad in Chicago IL, I have bought a 40 acre farm in South Central Iowa that I plan to retire to in 3 yrs. I want to raise and grow most of my own food using sustainible and organic methods. I have a blog that journals my journey to becoming a farmer.
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18 Responses to City Farm

  1. This is a really super concept! Thanks for sharing it. And I see some ideas we could use in our own garden, too.

    • Thanks Susan for your comments, I am adding your site to my blog roll as soon as I firgure out how to do that. Right now it just lets me add wordpress sites. I hope to have it fixed by the end of the weekend.

  2. Langela says:

    Looks like a fun day. And your garden would look that neat if you had a full-time worker there, too. For good info on gardening and how to make some of those tools for seeding, check out this site http://annieskitchengarden.blogspot.com/2012/03/march-20-2012-by-request.html . She is a wonderful source of information!

    • Thanks for sharing this Langela, I follow Granny too. she is a wonderful source of information. I have emailed her to see if she would let me put in a link to her site from this post about the soil block tool she has. It is a great idea she come up with. I am also putting your site on my blogroll as well as soon as I figure out how to do it.

  3. Kathy McDonough says:

    This is your train couple checking in, letting you know we are reading each of your posts and enjoying them very much.

    Kathy & Dennis McDonough

    Sent from my iPad

  4. Jewels says:

    Really enjoyed this one, Gordon! I can’t even say how wonderful of an idea this is! Bravo to City Farm and the city of Chicago! In recently moving back to the inner city after my divorce and no longer having my own land, I would love to be a part of something like this. My tiny garden is nowhere near “sustainable living,” I may have to see if the city of Minneapolis has anything like this…

    • Thanks Jewels, if Minneapolis dosn’t have anything like this, maybe you could sell them on the idea. You could model it after City Farm and you could be the manager. You are already a great gardener.

  5. John Copsy says:

    I really enjoyed this one too Gordon. You guys post a lot of interesting things. City farming looks like a great idea. If all cities in the USA did this, we would probably have the food crisis all taken care of in this nation of ours. Looking forward to some more info on this one, thank you. Tell Nikki hi, hope to see ya soon.

  6. ceciliag says:

    I am impressed, great post. I am going to take the train up to chicago in the not too distant future (as soon as i can get someone to milk the cow while i am gone) so i shall drop in and see the operation. Thank you for the hoop house link.. John is endlessly talking of building one and we even have a wood burner waiting in the garage just for that day.. sustainable is hard work, it is great seeing people getting into it.. c

    • Thanks ceciliag, you will enjoy your visit at city farm. They do even more then what I mentioned in my post and it is interesting place to see. Let me know when you are coming, I would like to meet you and your husband. Maybe we could meet at City Farm.

  7. purlygirl2 says:

    This was an excellent visit. I hope to volunteer this month.

  8. Dan Gressett says:

    Hi Gordon, new reader here and enjoying everything very much. Sure hope that toe hold City Farm has becomes a stronghold of values and hope. Next time you’re up there you might suggest they leave the top 3 feet of wire free from the posts of their chicken pen… every seen a racoon do a swan dive from the top of a fence?

  9. Glad you liked it Dan, that suggestion of leaving 3 feet of wire free from the post might just work, I will pass it on to them. Thanks for your input.

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