Growing a profitable urban farming cooperative in a low-income neighborhood

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2023: $7,522.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2025
Grant Recipient: OTIS Fresh Farm
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
Matthew Norris
OTIS Fresh Farm


  • Vegetables: carrots, eggplant, garlic, greens (leafy), leeks, onions, peppers, tomatoes, turnips


  • Crop Production: irrigation, no-till, organic fertilizers
  • Education and Training: demonstration
  • Farm Business Management: community-supported agriculture, cooperatives, marketing management
  • Sustainable Communities: quality of life, urban agriculture

    Proposal summary:

    We are trying to create an urban farm cooperative in a high-traffic thoroughfare which transforms a vacant, neglected lot into a bustling community garden that functions as both a source of viable employment and for emergency food distribution to the community. In an urban environment, we are unable to avoid trash blowing into our farm. This is characteristic of disinvested neighborhoods, and we can solve this creatively through planting bioswales, native shrubs, and fruit trees. We also have immense shade due to careless hacking by utility companies over the years, leaving our plot with increasing shade issues due to the way they've grown and a risk of large falling branches. We need an arborist to cut down the trees, which will ensure more consistent crop yields but also allow for us to experiment with native grains as a microbacterial trap in an establishing urban food forest setting. 

    In order to be profitable, we need a drip irrigation system that can automate the watering process and free us up for other business advancement opportunities. Hand-watering has been standard since 2020, and it is terrible inefficient because we are underutilizing our IBC tote.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Our water access issues have limited our ability to prioritize other important growth tasks needed to become sustainable. Implementing an above ground drip irrigation system is crucial to efficiency and uses our new water connection with with our neighbors J+E Glass who we have an MOU with for water use.  This includes all emitters, tape, puncturing equipment, 3-4 timers for automation that splits the farm in multuple sections (i.e. daily vs 3 days / week), and an enclosure to protect the timers and the main valve.

    For a holistic green space, we believe cultivating a small food forest will satisfy wants from community members that have been expressed. The orchard and native pollinator planting will follow the trimming of our three Siberian Oak trees, and be complemented by a bioswales along our landscape perimeter to reduce time spent doing trash collectoin (normally 3 times weekly) and manage stormwater runoff. Pooj will also lead experimentation on harvested cover crops to see if they function as successful traps for beneficial bacteria. This multi-stage process will allow us to see if we can achieve fermentation using native grains in a closed loop in an urban environment. This would function as another way to amend compost piles without bringing in unneccesary inputs.

    After the sustainability of regular labor and operational costs are met following this granting perioud, we plan to reintegrate the educational programming that Steve started back in 2018. We piloted an eight-week after school program with neighboring Richards Academy High School (across the street) consisting of a meal and beginning farming education for students designed by OTIS Fresh founder Steve Hughes. This will be a separate project, but once the farm is set we aim to bring on a dedicated educational program coordinator (fourth worker-member). Additionally, this project will allow for us to return to creating content that mobilizes people to engage with local farms, community gardens, and food access and equity initatives as Grow-Op was initially intented for. All of these process will be documented and shared to our highly engaged instagram and on our website that we will be launching this winter.


    -Implement above ground drip system for all beds, document installation process and maintenance troubleshooting with videos and journaling

    -Hire and on-board third worker-owner as farmhand and delivery support with pathway to farm operations lead

    -Diversify crop plan to include 1 full bed of cut flowers, 1 full bed of herbs, leeks, cauliflower, and other high-value crops as per feedback with stakeholders

    -Plant an orchard on additional 24' x 100' in understory of soon-to-be-trimmed siberian oak trees

    -Secure 1-2 consistent restaurant partners

    -Expand CSA to 15 full season commitments

    -Share progress and cross promote on social media, website, and newsletter

    -Plant three beds of native cover crop (wheat, millet, oats) in August for Korean farming method trials

    -Plant 5 varieties of native medium dry soil bioswales

    -Develop workshop on navigating water access and building a cooperatively run farm for public presentations

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.