Chicago Patchwork Farms is an urban vegetable and egg farm run by Katie Williams and Elise Robison across three pieces of land in the city of Chicago. We manage about an acre and a half of land, with about 3/4 of an acre in diversified vegetable production.
We run a 50 household CSA on site as well as a farm stand. We use these programs to connect our neighbors to healthy food and agricultural practices. On the farm, we also have a public garden and event space that is always open to the public so that people can relax and commune with our farm as well as our flower garden. We also go to 2 farmers markets within the city and sell to a handful of restaurants and grocery stores.
Beyond the human impact, our farm has an enormously positive impact on the ecology of the site. Just like most vacant land in Chicago, the site we built our farm on tested toxically high for lead before we started the farm. The levels averaged over 700 ppm across the entire area. The EPA’s standard for bare soil in children’s play areas is 400 ppm. Over the years we added large amounts of organic matter to the entire site, and now the growing areas test around 25 ppm, and the border areas measure around 70 ppm. Since we maintain native plantings around the borders of our growing areas, we have also seen a dramatic increase in insect and bird life on the farm--including monarch butterflies, hawks and kestrels! As it stands, the farm’s very presence impacts the health of our community by increasing ecological diversity and by removing the threat of lead. Also, we only use OMRI-listed and organic soil amendments. We believe in cultivating a diverse and vibrant soil community in order to grow healthy and nutritious plants.
This year we began researching what it takes to start an urban farm in Chicago. We are interested in the financial, material, and social investments necessary to start a farm that will ultimately become financially self-sufficient. Currently, there are so few models of successful and sustainable urban farm businesses in Chicago we are conducting this research so that we can ultimately create a guide to starting a farm in Chicago. Our guide will also include instructions on navigating the city’s laws and regulations as well as using the city’s records to find farm-able land.
So far, we have gathered the contact information of all of the farm business in Chicago, including farms that are just getting started last year and this year. We have reached out to all of these farmers to let them know about our research and have sent them initial surveys. From these surveys, we are setting up interviews with the farmers. We are going to interview the farmers at the beginning and end of the 2018 season. We are looking to hear about their major barriers to running a successful farm as well as their best successes. We are going to find out what their initial investments were, what they used the money for, and how they have used that investment to grow a business. So far, we have been very encouraged by the support and participation of the other farmers. We are still very excited about this project and looking forward to creating the resource.
With this project, we hope to create a comprehensive resource so that people interested in starting a farm have a guide to follow, resources to consider, as well as contacts for other farmers who run successful farms. We plan to share this resource widely and to maintain it and update it as more farms start up and forge the way to self-sustaining urban agriculture.
We began by spreading the word about our research project and asking the community to put us in contact with all of the urban farmers they knew of in Chicago. Then, we reached out to each farm with a letter that described our project and included one of three surveys–a survey for established farms, a survey for farms in their first 3 seasons, or a survey for aspiring farmers.
This winter we have been following up with these surveys with interviews. We will interview each participant this winter and again in the fall. We will follow up with one last, final survey that will ask any questions that popped up during the interviews.
We won’t have the final results from our research until we are done with all of the interviews and final surveys.
Educational & Outreach Activities
We are in the process of building an installation for the upcoming Midwest Urban Farmers Summit. This installation will be a way for farmers to contribute to our survey as well as review anonymized results from the survey as they come in.
At the summit, we will also be conducting interviews and further spreading the word about our research.