This was a two-year project spearheaded by Godwin L. Akpan on his farm in Pembroke, IL. He enlisted the help of several adult volunteers, children from a local 4-H program, and faculty members of the University of Illinois Extension. The farm had 25 acres of available land; however two acres were used for this project. On one acre, tomatoes, okra, pepper, cucumbers, zucchini, squash, swiss chard, watermelon, blackberries, and strawberries were planted and harvested. No special cropping system was used. The soil was tilled using hand tools and a hand operated rotor tiller, Mulch was placed over the soil to help retain moisture, reduce erosion, provide nutrients, and suppress weed growth.
The other acre was grazing land for livestock. Goats were the choice of livestock. Since the number of goats was small (4 total), a switchback grazing system was used on one acre of land while we grew vegetables on the other acre. Goats alternated grazing every 2 months between the two halves of the acre.
The ultimate goals of our efforts were to establish a sustainable farm system within 2 years of operation, and to provide education about organic farming and sustainable agricultural practices.
Prior to receiving this grant, we had farmed a small part of the 25 acres, but because of frequent crop destruction by animals and a lack of capital we delayed any further development until a time when money was available.
1. Create a farming project that provides adult and youth education.
2. To alleviate food and hunger issues in an urban Chicago area (known to be a food desert) by providing farm-grown nutritious foods to low-income families and battered women.
3. Develop a viable livestock (goat) farm for a niche market in Kankakee County.
4. Establish a sustainable farm model within three years of operation, such that inputs and financing for the farm will come from within.
United Human Services Center (UHSC) is the Chicago based non-profit agency operated by Godwin L. Akpan who developed this agricultural project. UHSC provided shelter to battered women and also food pantry services to Englewood; an impoverished Chicago neighborhood that is a known food desert. Mr. Akpan also owned Goddylaw farms, a 25-acre farm in Pembroke, IL most of which sat unused. Englewood residents and UHSC volunteers expressed interest in learning more about farming as a result of a community garden which Mr. Akpan had been growing for the previous three years. As a result, a proposal to develop a 2-acre portion of land for the purpose of educating people and providing nutritious food for them was developed.
Over the course of two years, Mr. Akpan and his UHSC volunteers drove 60 miles south of Chicago to Goddylaw Farms in order to worked side-by-side with ten youth from a 4-H program in Pembroke, IL. During this time, education in sustainable farming techniques was provided by University of Illinois Extension educators and all farming was done at Goddylaw Farms in Pembroke, IL. Livestock farming was also included in the goals of this project because it was another way of creating a sustainable farm and also because we discovered a niche market for goat meat in the Pembroke area.
The first step taken in this project was erecting fencing around the land. This was accomplished in 10 days. Next was tilling the 1 acre of land for the crops. Adults and youth used hand tools to till a specified area and occasionally a hand operated rotor-tiller was used as needed. Raised beds were constructed for some of the vegetables. Our water source came from a borehole which we sunk to access a nearby aquifer. Seed planting, fertilizing, mulching, watering and weeding were a joint effort by all parties, although most of the work was done by UHSC adult volunteers. As a result, UHSC volunteers were given small stipends totaling $80 each for their manual labor.
Four goats were purchased and place on an adjacent 1-acre tract of land. They were switched every two months to graze half of the acre. A shed was built for housing goats during inclement weather. Once the project components were in place, UHSC volunteers came to the farm once or twice a week. Only one UHSC volunteer spent a large portion of time on the farm in order to regularly check on progress, tend the goats, weed the crops, and repair/maintain equipment and fencing. He was paid $150 per month.
University of Illinois Extension educators came to the farm to teach adults and youth about many topics including mulching, soil management, livestock management, crop selection, pest management, disease management, and sustainable farming techniques. Their input was invaluable to the success of our efforts.
1. The educators from the University of Illinois Extension who helped us were:
James Theuri – provided day-to-day technical advice and helped support us with 4-H Youth Activities.
Merrill Marxman – assisted with advice on pasture poultry.
Eileen Phillips – provided advice on pasture establishment.
2. United Human Services Center
Veronica G. Akpan – provided food and water and general support to volunteers
Bobby Raby – volunteer; farm hand
Jewel Robinson – volunteer
Oscar Avila – volunteer
Miguel Aguilar – volunteer
Enrique Martinez – volunteer
Herman Zavala – volunteer
James Booker – volunteer
A. CROP FARMING
Tomatoes – (1,500 lbs per week) x (6 weeks) = 9000 lbs/ yr x 2yrs = 18,000 lbs
Okra – (500 lbs per week) x (6 weeks) = 3000 lbs/ yr x 2yrs = 6,000 lbs
Peppers – (1000 lbs per week) x (6 weeks) = 6000 lbs/ yr x 2yrs = 12,000 lbs
Cucumbers – (500 lbs per week) x (6 weeks) = 3000 lbs/ yr x 2yrs = 6,000 lbs
Zucchini – (250 lbs per week) x (6 weeks) = 1500 lbs/ yr x 2yrs = 3,000 lbs
Squash – (250 lbs per week) x (6 weeks) = 1500 lbs/ yr x 2yrs = 3,000 lbs
Swiss chard – (300 lbs per week) x (6 weeks) = 1800 lbs/ yr x 2yrs = 3,600 lbs
Watermelon – (300 lbs per week) x (6 weeks) = 1800 lbs/ yr x 2yrs = 3,600 lbs
Blackberries – (150 lbs per week) x (6 weeks) = 900 lbs/ yr x 2yrs = 1,800 lbs
Strawberries – (250 lbs per week) x (6 weeks) = 1500 lbs/ yr x 2yrs = 3,000 lbs
Our yield of vegetables was excellent! According to these calculations, we had a crop yield of approximately 30,000 lbs per acre. This exceeded our expectations. Compared to conventional systems, we found sustainable farming cheaper, healthier and highly productive. We were able to achieve wonderful results with cheaper inputs and were able to guarantee our clientele that no pesticides were used in growing the food
B. LIVESTOCK FARMING
Four Spanish meat goats (1 buck and 3 does) were purchased and allowed to graze on grass as described above. At 8 months of age the does were noted to be in estrus and the buck seemed sexually responsive. However, despite many mating events, the does were never impregnated. Examination of the buck at 1 year of age by a veterinarian revealed one undescended testicle. We learned that this condition, known as a cryptorchidism, can often lead to decreased fertility or infertility. The veterinarian further explained that since cryptorchidism is hereditary, these bucks should not be used for breeding. Given our severe money shortage it was decided that livestock farming would be temporarily suspended. The animals were allowed to mature to 18 months of age then slaughtered. The meat was sold for a total of $600 which helped us maintain other aspects of the farm.
We measured educational achievement in various ways. Youth from the 4-H program were given monthly quizzes to assess their knowledge base. This was part of the curriculum of the University of Illinois Extension. They were also given their own raised bed to plant crops in and allowed to be the primary person tending it. All of the involved youth did well academically and successfully produced food on their plots of land. UHSC volunteers also had training sessions designed for them by the university educators. No quizzes were given, but with the excellent crop yield we had, we can confidently say that their ability to learn and apply that learning was very good. In fact, several of the UHSC volunteers have begun to grow their own organic gardens at home too!
UHSC also participated in the Kankakee Sustainability Exposition in June 2009 where we had a farm stand with many of our foods for sale. We also provided information to over 600 families about our sustainable and organic farming techniques and the success we had with them. Since this is a largely agricultural community, we received feedback and advice from many people. We were well received and a good time was had by all.
D. FEEDING THE HUNGRY
We took our success in Kankakee and attempted to duplicate it in the Chicago community we serve. We augmented the groceries given at our food pantry with healthy vegetables from the farm. The feedback we got from the clients was very encouraging. During the first year we tried to sell our crops to people in the Englewood community where the food pantry is located. Due to the severe poverty in the area, very few people were able to afford to buy the food at prices that were profitable. We lowered the prices so much that we actually took a loss because we were selling pounds of food for $1-2. After 4 weeks of poor sales we decided to just give the food away to the food pantry rather than ask people to buy it. During the second year we did not sell the food in Chicago except for a handful of people who ordered foods from us. The majority of the food we grew was given away at the food pantry to feed the 150-200 families who might come weekly for assistance. We met our goal of feeding healthy food to this impoverished population. About 40 individuals expressed interest in learning about methods of organic gardening so they could grow the same foods for themselves. Based on this, UHSC has relocated its organic garden to a place where many people within the community can come to learn how to grow food for themselves.
This was a very good experience for UHSC in many ways. We raised foods that are healthy for consumers; implemented practices that help conserve the environment and contributed to the biodiversity of an ecosystem. These practices put less strain on a heavily taxed environment and also help support local communities both nutritionally and economically. One of the changes we will make in the future is decreasing our transportation costs by selling food locally. Although we did see a financial profit from our efforts, it was smaller than expected. This occurred in part because we attempted to sell our foods in the distant Chicago market. We were in the area of our food pantry, which is considered a food desert, but the lack of buying power in the community ultimately posed economic problems for us. We will focus more on local farm markets and places/events where we can offer our farm-grown food to locals. This money will help our farm to be self-sufficient while we continue to reach out to the poorer communities of Chicago. We feel it is important to maintain this connection with this underserved community. The farm-grown food they have eaten has motivated people to become more interested in agriculture. We have also reached out to Chicago grocers, restaurants, and other businesses who have expressed a strong interest in buying our foods in the future. Our take-home lesson here is that regardless of whether people are in a rural or urban setting, they value fresh produce and are eager to learn how to produce their own food.
Another important lesson we have taken away is the need for a reasonable amount of startup capital to buy equipment and other necessary items. We were in the tough position of deciding to slaughter our four goats to use the money to support other farming activities. Ideally we should have been able to buy a buck of 1-2 years who did not have any reproductive issues so we could continue the goat farm. We will likely be purchasing goats in the near future so this aspect of our farm can be restored.
Our chief barrier to overcome was that of getting working capital to get our vision of improving our farming techniques underway. The funds provided by this grant helped us to overcome this problem. We bought the fencing that helped us to prevent crop destruction, which had been a problem in the past. We bought the equipment to make raised beds and had support from The University of Illinois Extension to educate the people that labored to do the work that needed to be done in the community. All of these factors helped make our project in Pembroke, IL a success.
Word of mouth was the main method of communication in finding the volunteers to help do the work involved in getting this project off the ground.
We did no special outreach for the Kankakee Sustainability Exposition. It was a preset event that already had advertising.