City Farm grows jobs, knowledge and tomatoes

Eventually, the land at City Farm in Chicago's Cabrini Green neighborhood will sell for millions of dollars and a development deal.

But for now, it supports 98 types of organic vegetables and herbs, and the largest crop of heirloom and hybrid tomatoes in Chicago.

"We're going to have 25 varieties of heirloom tomatoes coming up and 30 varieties of hot peppers, and eggplant and potatoes," says Tim Wilson, 25, City Farm's director of urban agriculture, and a farmer himself.

The farm, on an acre and a quarter of city-owned land, was founded by Chicago recycling pioneer Ken Dunn, who established City Farm in 2000 as a way to convert unused property in economically challenged neighborhoods into fresh produce, jobs and learning opportunities.

City Farm operates as part of the Resource Center, the city's first and largest non-profit recycling center, founded by Dunn more than 30 years ago.

In 2002, the farm sat at 1240 N. Clybourn. When the property was sold about two years later, workers dug and transported an estimated 10,000 cubic yards of soil next door to its current location at 1204 N. Clybourn.

It's a humble-looking operation, with recycled, hand-painted signs and an old trailer serving as an office. The farm has no electricity and gets water from garden hoses attached to a fire hydrant.  It is tended by four full-time employees, a few semi-regular volunteers and anywhere from five to 20 volunteers every Saturday during the growing season.

This year, the farmers expect to harvest between 4,000 and 8,000 pounds of tomatoes, many of them destined for sale to the café at Fox and Obel, Frontera Grill, Vie, Lula Café, North Pond and other restaurants.

City Farm yielded $60,000 in produce sales last year.

The city provides the land at no charge until it is ready to sell. The city also gives assistance through the departments of planning and development, streets and sanitation and water, but provides no funding toward the program's $135,000 annual budget.

When the city is ready to sell the lot, workers will dig up the soil and move it again.

In the meantime, Wilson says, the farm provides youth, after-school and unemployment programs to the people of Cabrini Green, a neighborhood once notorious for drugs, crime and decay, but now a place where public housing high rises are being replaced with expensive condominiums.

"We've had a pretty strong tie to Cabrini Green and hope to continue that, " Wilson says.

Volunteer Jimmie Ficklin, 63, is a Vietnam veteran who lived next door to City Farm this summer.

Ficklin, who used to grow cucumbers in his back yard in Englewood, hopes to start a similar farm on another vacant lot. "This is a passion of mine," says Ficklin, who often starts chores at the farm at 6 a.m.

"By my being here, I'm learning more and more about the proper way to do this," he says.

Pete Scales, a spokesman for the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, says the program is a good fit with plans for the area's long-term redevelopment.

"Instead of just having this land lying vacant and creating urban blight, we figured it could be transformed into a living working farm in the middle of the city," Scales says.

"They've put some people to work and, needless to say, have an incredible product coming out of that farm. I've eaten it several times myself and think their tomatoes are about the greatest thing I've ever had."

Cassie Green, owner of Green Grocer Chicago at 1402 W. Grand, also praises City Farm produce, which she buys for her grocery.

"We've gotten arugula, gorgeous lettuces, baby mustard greens, turnips, all sorts of stuff." Her customers, Green says, "went bonkers" for the farm's lettuce and mustard greens.

Organic growing "with no pesticides whatsoever" gives the produce its fresh taste, says Nicole Grijnsztein, 23, a full-time City Farmer from Bridgeport.

"We have really rich compost that we make ourselves. That definitely helps us get really healthy plants."

Growing local also gives the produce an advantage, she says.

"A vegetable tastes freshest immediately after it's picked.  Then it begins the process of dying and losing its taste."

Eric Jensen, 38, an environmental science teacher and Wicker Park resident, has bought collard greens, Swiss chard and other produce from City Farm. The taste, he says, is "fantastic."

Jenson also likes the idea of buying local.

"I'd rather support locally grown food that doesn't have the transportation/carbon footprint of corporate food suppliers like Dominick's or Jewel, " he says.

Paul Virant, 38, an award-winning chef who has worked at Everest, Blackbird and other celebrated Chicago restaurants, now owns Vie in Western Springs and regularly buys produce from City Farm.

He says he always buys City Farm's tomatoes, and that he pickles, purees and cans some of them.

City Farm's garlic, Virant says, is "just unreal."

And the tomatoes? "They're as pure as they get."

City Farm's market stand at 1204 N. Clybourn is open to the public from 3-6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays. The farm also sells its produce at the Logan Square Farmers' Market from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays.