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Instead of being rural and vast, these farms are a couple-acre lots enclosed by major streets and railway lines. Instead of shipping produce long distances, these farms serve their local, South Side communities. Instead of owning the land, these farmers tend to it with their community in mind. Instead of using a top-down structure of organization, these farms are cooperative, owned equally by the farmers themselves and the City of Chicago. These are cooperative farms, the new crop of urban agriculture on the South Side.

One of the major players in the movement for agricultural cooperatives is Grow Greater Englewood (GGE), an organization founded in 2013 that promotes community wealth building through sustainable agriculture. Cooperative farming is a central aspect of GGE’s community organizing. 

L. Anton Seals Jr., the Lead Steward and Executive Director of GGE, said, “our programing is focused on bringing more people into learning about ecology and the food system.” While the organization is educational, Seals explained that it’s focused on community wealth-building. “The thrust will be to try to help those who are graduating from the different urban agriculture programs. How do we get them onto the land, how do we support them in their business endeavors, and how do we work together as a collective?” The cooperative structure, he added, “allows for people to have their own autonomy and then bridge out from there.”

As for the decision to adopt this structure, Seals says GGE is focusing on finding right model to support the emerging businesses. “We think that [as far as] engaging and getting more members, we have to raise the quality of what’s in it for the membership.” So far, the cooperative model has proven to be the best option.

Along with the wealth-building educational programming, the main GGE project is the Englewood Community Farm. Located along the former 59th Street El tracks in Englewood, the program’s vision is to “create and support community-based urban farms in Englewood managed as business enterprises by local farmers.” The City of Chicago owns the lot, but NeighborSpace, a nonprofit trust that supports and protects gardens, will both hold the lot and help GGE create their own trust, the Englewood Community Land Trust Cooperative.

The land at 58th and Halsted will be turned into a plaza and community garden. Various businesses will make up the Englewood Community Farms project, operating together as a cooperative, including Black Oaks, a nonprofit organization that runs educational program and the Healthy Food Hub, an agricultural cooperative that brings in produce grown by Black farmers in Pembroke for purchase in Oak Forest and Englewood; Your Bountiful Harvest, an organization run by Safia Rashid that provides education and consultations in sustainable agriculture; Urban Growers Collective, a nonprofit initiative helping communities develop local food systems; and DuSable City Ancestral Winery, a new vineyard focused on using local herbs and fruits.

According to the business plan, the community garden will have four to eight plots that can be used by either for-profit or cooperative organizations. Farmers will each manage their own operations, but share tools, soil amendments, refrigeration, hoop houses, fencing, and other resources. The retired El line will eventually become a linear park and tree tunnel stretching from Halsted to Damen.

The business plan includes hosting performances and events on the plaza and finding the right investors. According to Seals, the main focus is “keeping our values centered, kind of piece around how we’re growing, what we’re growing…and later how the farmers after us are brought onto the land.”

The uptick in urban, cooperative agriculture, Seals says, can be attributed to the fact that many communities are trying to establish food security and localize their economies. “We think that there is an untapped market that could really drive this issue around community wealth building, particularly Black wealth building. We are being very intentional around that. That’s why a lot of the farmers we are trying to attract here are African-American farmers.”

In order to accomplish wealth building in the Englewood community, GGE is focused on making sure their work does not displace residents. To that end, the group created its own 3P model: a Public-Public Partnership, rather than the usual Public-Private one, to ensure that the public institutions work with local residents as the other partner. Seals hopes that by involving residents, they will be less likely to become displaced. For GGE, it is especially important to reach out to the residents who live right next to the lots in question in order to help the economy but not cause displacement. Seals makes sure residents are involved by asking questions like: “What does it mean to them? What are the different points of opportunities for them to connect to this work?”

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A cooperative management structure is becoming increasingly attractive to many urban farmers, and other food workers, in Chicago.  In 2016, State Representative Will Guzzardi sponsored and passed a bill that updated the language of the Illinois Cooperative Act of 1918 to define co-ops as any organization operated by its shareholders, making it easier for co-ops to form and obtain licensing. Before, only particular types of manufacturers could be considered as co-ops. While this change was a seen as a step forward for co-op interests, many organizations still choose to only operate cooperatively rather than become legally recognized under the Illinois Cooperative Statute because the law still considers workers to be employees rather than owners.  

While many urban agricultural co-ops are still in the planning phase, like the Englewood Community Farm, some are currently operating. One of the newest members of the co-op community is Bronzeville’s Nodding Onion Farm, located on the Windy City Harvest (WCH) Legends Farm at 44th and Federal. Formed in January 2018, the farm is  equally-owned by five recent alums of the Windy City Harvest apprenticeship (Angela Klipp, Giulianna Ciocca, Maggie Dohr, Dylan Hayworth-Weste, and Lauren Ocon) around the vision of sustainable food and equitable ownership practices.

Klipp saw the cooperative system as a way to make a sustainable food business “that is mission-driven, that makes money, that is honest about what their goals are, and that is actually living the message that people assume is the case for most farms, but is actually not.”

Hayworth-Weste was drawn to Nodding Onion for different reasons. “My experience [with more traditional farm models] was less than positive in terms of working for companies where equity is not something that’s shared in any capacity,” he says. He explains that the discussion around traditional, top-down agricultural structures “is not happening as much as the discussion around the importance of local and organic production. Those things are very important, but actually talking about empowering workers and forming collective structures so it doesn’t actually resemble farming in a rural context can actually influence [rural farm structures] as well.”

Already in its first few months of operation, the Nodding Onion has found the cooperative structure to be beneficial. For Dohr, “it is a lot more sustainable for a program, business, or organization to not be driven by one individual, to be rather inclusive.” Klipp adds that the diversification of strength is brought out in a cooperative system. “We are all stronger as a group, and equal ownership gives us an ability to express those strengths and feel empowered to take on our own leadership roles.”

In their cooperative structure, they use a consensus model in which they make all their decisions together. The cooperative not only makes sure that all owners are satisfied with a decision, but their crop plan is developed according to the needs of the community.

They attribute the increase in cooperative agriculture as a response to traditional work environments. “Everybody wants to feel valued where they work, they want to feel it’s more than just getting a paycheck, and they want to feel invested in what they are doing,” Dohr says. “Traditional agriculture has some pretty horrific labor practices, so instead of trying to adopt those models and downsize them to urban areas, I think people are starting to realize that it is important to change the structure a little bit.”

Nodding Onion currently participates in farmer’s markets and offers a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscription as well as a Restaurant Supported Agriculture service. Their weekly subscription delivers fresh flowers and produce within a five-mile radius and runs from mid-May to mid-November. A CSA subscription costs $600 for that seven-month period–about twenty people have signed up so far. While the Nodding Onion team understands that this price may be a potential deterrent, they find the weekly cost ($24) is close to many high-end Chicago grocers. The farmers deliver the produce themselves—often by bike— within days of harvest. Their cooperative structure, with five farmers with different backgrounds, allowed them reach out to many different networks, helping them get started with CSA.  

In terms of working with the community, they partner with different community organizations across the South West Side at their pick-up locations, and are planning to find channels to donate as much produce as they can. Ciocca adds that they also plan on launching educational initiatives, to help other local farmers adopt the cooperative structure.  

The farm is located on a Windy City Harvest incubator lot which supports farmers with tools and land to help minimize startup costs for up to two years. While Nodding Onion has no concrete plans for the future, Klipp says “the difficulty with being a landless farmer is that it requires a lot of investment, but there is no security in that land.”

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Understanding the difficulty of farming in Chicago, the idea of collaboration and stewardship is central to both the Nodding Onion and Grow Greater Englewood cooperative projects.

Hayworth-Weste envisions creating a broader network of other landless farmers in the community. “We are all trying to start without any sort of control over the land that we are growing on, and unfortunately, that is more or less the case with most farms in Chicago,”he says, adding that he would like to see that these types of networks “can move to a point where this is shared land ownership of farmers and there’s not just these sort of rental or lease agreements.”

The idea of not owning the land, but tending it, is an important part of the GGE project as well. This is why Seals’s job title is a “steward.” “Stewardship is built around this notion that you don’t own the Earth. You take care of the Earth and you take care of the food,” he says.  “You make sure that it’s part of a legacy. In particular for black people, that have been so traumatized by their connection to the Earth because of the slave trade.”

To Seals, part of GGE’s goal is “working to connect the legacy of Black people and the land. This notion of ecology and food system is a big part of the legacy of Africans in this country. In the slave trade, what is often left out is that the people who were brought were highly skilled people who tended to the land.” Seals explains that a broad goal of GGE is “how do we take the most unappreciative parts of our culture, American culture,  and make that valuable?”

Both Grow Greater Englewood and Nodding Onion enter the Chicago urban, cooperative agricultural movement with the goal of connecting the community with sustainable food and management practices. By understanding the failings of traditional agriculture, whether in terms of its history or labor practices, both organizations are trying to change the way we think of community organization and equity around food. Ciocca explains that the nodding onion, their farm’s namesake, is a native Chicago herb considered invasive in some areas, but endangered in others.

“The nodding onion is a beautiful flower, and can be considered a weed,” Ciocca said. “But it is all about how you look at things. It is a beautiful image of something that can be overlooked.”

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Veronica Karlin is a contributor to the Weekly. She’s an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, originally from Los Angeles. She last wrote for the Weekly about Odyssey Project docents at the Smart Museum in March.