How’s the community garden doing?” That’s a question that 6th District State Representative Sonya Harper asks in most of her meetings with the city of Chicago, just for good measure. The city’s response to Harper is usually that the garden is doing fine, and that nothing’s changed.
Around noon on a Saturday in February at the Southside Occupational Academy in West Englewood, the school’s hallways were filled with urbanites clutching pamphlets about raising bees and goats and ducks. The occasion was the sixth annual Urban Livestock Expo, where residents curious about urban agriculture from all over Chicago could learn from organizations such as Advocates for Urban Agriculture, Chicago Honey Co-op, and Chicagoland Chicken Enthusiasts. In the auditorium a crowd listened attentively as the manager of a beekeeping supply store explained the best ways to monitor a colony’s health during Chicago’s bitter winters, while down the hall a classroom played host to a goat and its many admirers.
Deep in the recesses of a basement at a former meatpacking facility in Back of the Yards, opposite large hydroponic tanks and industrial storage lockers, lives an unlikely success story. Tiny shoots of pea, radish, and peppercress bask under hanging lights, housed on several racks six feet tall and eight feet long. Twice a week, they are harvested and delivered to restaurants throughout the city, where they introduce surprisingly strong flavors into salads and sandwiches. Meanwhile, the leftover soil is composted, and a new set of trays, filled with germinated seeds, is brought out from underneath and into the light. The cycle continues and the demand for microgreens grows.
The summer of 1943 witnessed a remarkable collective mobilization: Chicagoans produced more than 55,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables in nearly 175,000 Victory Gardens, small plots of land started by citizens to mobilize food production during World War I and II.
The animals at the fifth annual Urban Livestock Expo, unlike their wilder counterparts, are indifferent to the fact that it’s an unusually warm and sun-drenched winter day. They have been convened in the ventilated lobby of the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences (CHSAS) by local nonprofit Advocates for Urban Agriculture for an event intended to showcase the urban livestock community and to educate would-be urban farmers. Many of the presenters at last Saturday’s event are on double duty, discussing their livelihoods with attendees before dashing into classrooms to teach workshops.