Working to see Urban Farms ThriveMeet Three Urban Farmers
According to the USDA, “urban agriculture allows for the development of a variety of environmental, economic and social benefits to the surrounding communities.” Those benefits don’t come easily, however, as urban farmers face a number of obstacles, in addition to the natural challenges of farming, as they aim to operate in busy, landlocked and sometimes blighted areas.
Urban farms don’t happen without the dedication of passionate, involved activists. Here we introduce you to three Chicago women who are changing their neighborhoods through the operation of urban farms.
Natasha Nicholes, Founder and Executive Director of We Sow We Grow
Nicholes first became interested in urban farming when working directly with the Illinois Farm Bureau® and their Illinois Farm Families® program. Through that experience, she realized that she wanted to see the farm feeling in Chicago. “I knew that it existed, but I didn't see it prominently in my neighborhood, or accessible to the people who didn't know that it was even a thing being done in our metropolis,” she said. She’s been involved in urban farming since 2008 and is the founder and Executive Director of the We Sow We Grow Project, a nonprofit urban farming initiative dedicated to increasing the number of home growers around the world. “We aspire to create a world where everyone who has a desire to eat, can do so with dignity and without having to check off certain boxes in order to qualify,” said Nicholes.
Stephanie Dunn, Founder and Executive Director of Star Farm Chicago
Before launching Star Farm in 2016, Dunn worked developing and implementing public programming centered on community engagement, ecology, environmental justice, growing culturally relevant food and medicine, and developing inclusive public programming for institutions such as the Cook County Forest Preserves, Chicago Park District, Center for Green Technology and more. Through additional experience managing food gardens for distribution to food pantries, working for landscaping companies and managing farmers markets, she brings a community-centered focus to food and farming. She is a Master Gardener and Master Urban Farmer, a member of the Grown in Chicago Council, an officer with the Illinois Stewardship Alliance Local Food and Farmers Caucus, a licensed General Contractor and holds a certificate in Urban Farming from Triton College and a Bachelors in English and Anthropology from DePaul University. She is also a Back of the Yards resident and mother of two.
Alicia Nesbary-Moore, Chief Veggie Officer of Herban Produce
Nesbary-Moore co-owns and operates Herban Produce, a two-acre production farm in the City of Chicago where she grows specialty greens, herbs, and flowers. The farm is also an agrotourism destination where events and classes take place and farm tours are offered. Also part of the farm is a “Farmstay” that is available through Airbnb. “Farming is still an emerging field in metro areas like Chicago. Therefore, the laws and ordinances don't always support our operations, so I find myself lobbying on behalf of urban farmers to make sure that this work is more accessible for future urban farmers,” she said.
What are Some of the Biggest Benefits of Urban Farming?
“They create green spaces in neighborhoods, while also providing a fresh food source for the community. It's statistically shown that neighborhoods with urban agricultural spaces see an increase in community involvement, job creation and general well-being, while decreasing negative effects brought on by no access to quality programming and resources.” ~ Natasha Nicholes, Executive Director of We Sow We Grow.
“The biggest benefits urban farms have are the education they are able to engage entire communities in, their creation of circular economies and green space and the massive reduction of fuel and water through the elimination of several steps in the supply chain used by industrial agriculture. Instead of crops being grown in rural areas, shipped to suburban factories to be processed, industrially processed and preserved, shipped to market and bought, urban farms are able to grow, process and sell within the same environment, getting food from farm to table without damaging the earth.” ~ Stephanie Dunn, Executive Director of Star Farm Chicago.
“I live and operate my farm in a food desert, or as I call it apartheid, because deserts actually thrive. Farming gives us the opportunity to increase access to fresh, healthy food options for our local community. I also get to witness the benefits of adding beautiful, edbile landscapes to land that was previously vacant. It has helped to add value to the neighborhood by just existing.” ~ Alicia Nesbary-Moore, Chief Veggie Officer at Herban Produce.
What are Some of the Challenges That Urban Farmers Face?
“Land and water access is one of the largest challenges. Also, convincing city officials that what we do is a need, rather than a hobby or trend. Money has also been one of the largest issues, as well. Making sure that we have income to provide what we do, is often one of the things that could make or break an entire urban farming environment. We find ways to bridge the gap the same way that rural farmers do, often leaning on family and community to help us plant, harvest or amend. And we continue showing up for ourselves and our communities because we deserve access to fresh food, too.” ~ Natasha Nicholes, Executive Director of We Sew We Grow.
“Some of the biggest challenges urban farmers face are related to the urban environment: the farm's ability to connect with the neighborhood they're in and the domination of the market by industrial agriculture. For example, a rural organic farm would be able to use techniques like land stacking and including animals in the symbiotic relationships that form the circular economy of a healthy farm. A rural farm would also be able to implement a full-scale composting system to regenerate their fields, while urban farms have to be careful about only composting plant waste, so as not to attract vermin to a residential area and food processing site. In addition to this, urban farms have to prioritize the neighborhood they're in. Urban farming is a radical process. Without the support of the local community (as well as the necessity of communicating with your client base), an urban farm would lack its strongest ability to create change. But most organic food and education around circular economies are focused toward an upper-middle class audience. Because of this, Star Farm maintains our mission to present accessible education around nutrition and circular economies in multiple languages to the largely BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) community around us, as they have the same right to a healthy diet and green world, a right so often instead denied by institutional powers. To counter the domination of markets by industrial agriculture, we make our produce widely available at farmers markets, specially organized pop ups and through community supported agriculture programs that bring the produce right to the customer's door.” ~ Stephanie Dunn, Executive Director of Star Farm Chicago.
“One major challenge is land access. Often times we are land locked and unable to scale our businesses for profitability. One way we are overcoming challenges is making our operations more productive and diversifying our revenue streams to go beyond food production.” ~ Alicia Nesbary-Moore, Chief Veggie Officer at Herban Produce.