Updated: Apr 6
While most Chicagoans barely left their homes during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Tucker Kelly was out every day, rain or shine commuting by bike to Growing Solutions Farm, a 1.2-acre produce farm at the far western edge of the Illinois Medical District. Tucker, who is the lead grower at the farm, together with a (very) small but dedicated group of volunteers, spent hundreds of hours reorienting and enlarging the farm’s raised beds, moving 4 X 4s and spreading more than 60 yards of new soil by wheelbarrow. Their efforts more than doubled the growing capacity of the farm, resulting in its most profitable season ever. In 2020, farm sales totaled $21,750, almost double the sales from 2019 which were $9,885.
Growing Solutions Farm is run by Urban Autism Solutions, a non-profit dedicated to changing outcomes for young adults with autism through immersion in community life and programs that offer social and vocational opportunities. Students from West Side Chicago public high schools with autism and related challenges visit the farm to gain vocational and transferrable job skills. They learn how to prepare soil, create composting systems, plant seeds and seedlings, maintain crops, weed garden beds and harvest, clean and package produce for sale at the on-site farm stand. They also gain transferrable job skills they can use at any job, including how to communicate effectively with co-workers and supervisors, getting to work on time, wearing a uniform, following directions and accomplishing tasks.
All this programming requires someone who both knows how to run a productive farm as well as how to effectively teach a unique student population about everything from safe food handling to tending a compost pile. It’s a tall order, but Tucker is definitely the man for the job.
Tucker celebrating his birthday at the farm with a mango ice.
Originally from a small town in Ohio, Tucker has been a professional farmer since 2010. He has worked on much larger farms, including at Windy City Harvest at the Chicago Botanic Garden, where he worked with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. Tucker joined Growing Solutions Farm in 2017.
The 2020 pandemic season was definitely disorienting. “Nobody really knew what was going to happen but we decided to move forward with the farm and offer our CSA program and sell at our on-site farmers market and at Green City Market,” said Tucker.
Without students at the farm, Tucker and a core group of volunteers had plenty of time to rearrange the existing garden beds to increase capacity and efficiency. They transformed the farm and brought capacity from 3,555 square feet of growing space in 2019 to almost 5,000 square feet of raised beds in 2020. As of summer 2021, the farm is up to 7,000 square feet.
Their efforts led to a dramatic increase in production and associated sales. But with fewer volunteers and students to help out on the farm, there was also more work. Tucker hired a part-time staffer about halfway through the season. Farmer John, a long-time volunteer and another volunteer who lived in the area made up Tucker’s 2020 crew. Watering was an issue until July when backed-up inspectors had a chance to finally turn on the water supply (a nearby fire hydrant).
“It was rough but we were able to accomplish the renovations and planted pretty much on time,” Tucker said.
Most of the 2020 sales were driven by selling at Green City Market, a farmers market that includes sellers from farms in the Chicagoland area. Tucker explained that Growing Solutions Farm won’t be participating in Green City Market in 2021 because of the cost of doing business there (parking, permits) as well as the time factors involved in bringing food to this off-site market.
“I think our spike in sales in 2020 is partly to do with the fact that people were afraid to go to the supermarket with the pandemic, but they were willing to come to our outdoor farm stand to buy fresh produce, so that plus the fact that we had more food, I think were the main drivers of our business,” Tucker said.
Things at the farm have gotten off to a slower start in 2021 in terms of students returning, but sales are comparable to last year’s sales, so far. “With more people going back to the grocery store, I don’t know if we can keep up our pace of sales in the same way as last year, but we are settling into a groove with the increased production capacity of the farm, and expect to have a great post-pandemic year.”