This blog post is guest-written by Growing Solutions Farm lead grower Tucker Kelly. This past season (2021) was Tucker’s third at the farm. He manages everything related to the farm (landscaping, scheduling staff, students, volunteers and farm stands, as well as ensuring the safe handling of produce). Tucker has worked on urban agriculture projects since 2010, including a position at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Windy City Harvest as a trainer. He holds a ServSafe certificate and is working on a GAP (Good Agriculture Practices) Certification (2022) for Growing Solutions Farm. Tucker also works closely with young adults with autism and related challenges from Chicago public high schools who visit and work at the farm.
Hello readers! Now that the farm has been put to bed for the season, I wanted to take some time to answer some frequently asked questions my staff and I received from farm visitors over the growing season. We love your questions and enjoy talking about the farm and educating the public about what we do, both in terms of our crops and programs. If you have additional questions about Growing Solutions Farm, feel free to email them to firstname.lastname@example.org
Our first, and possibly most frequently-asked question is how big is the farm?
Growing Solutions Farm is a 1.2-acre produce farm in the Illinois Medical District on Chicago’s West Side. We have about 7,000 square feet of growing space, including raised beds and a hoop house (where we grow primarily tomatoes).
What do you grow at the farm?
GSF is a produce farm. Some of the produce we grow includes greens like lettuce, spinach and chard, all kinds of herbs, eggplant, zucchini, cucumbers, lots of peppers, carrots, potatoes, beans, gourds, onions and garlic. On the fruit side, we grow tomatoes, which are technically fruits. These are grown mostly in the hoop house which provides the warmer temperatures that are best for tomato production. We also have a few flower beds we use to create bouquets to sell at our farm stand.
What do the students do at the farm?
GSF is a unique learning environment where transition-aged (16 – 22 years old) students with autism and related challenges from West Side public high schools learn about urban agriculture while gaining transferable job and social skills they can apply to future employment or to lead fulfilling lives as they transition to adulthood. We may also have young adults who join us through our summer camps and/or as private clients. Participants learn all aspects of urban agriculture including light construction, food safety and sanitation, how to plant and maintain crops, create nutrient-rich compost and how to harvest, wash and package food for sale at our farm stands, through our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project and to small businesses, restaurants and wholesalers.
While we don’t expect our students to become urban farmers, by working at the farm they acquire ‘soft skills’ they can use at any job: navigating to work using public transportation, showing up to work on time and in uniform, following a daily schedule to accomplish tasks, and effectively communicating with co-workers, supervisors and instructors.
Eligible Chicago young adult residents are also able to receive paid employment at the farm as part of the city of Chicago's One Summer Chicago program. This is especially important, as it gives our participants paid employment experience and they can put their work experience on the farm on their resumes.
Is the farm organic?
Being certified organic farm is a long and expensive certification process and it is just not applicable for farms our size.
If it’s not organic, then what is it?
We only use products on the farm that are certified USDA organic, meaning we don’t add anything to the soil or apply it to our plants that isn’t organic. The foundation of our practice is healthy, nutrient-rich soil, which goes a long way in solving the problems you might use fertilizers or pesticides to solve. We make our own compost on-site with organic byproducts of growing our crops, including stems and leaves as well as produce that is unsalable for a variety of reasons. We collect this material and use it in our 30 compost bins along with some coffee chaff from Intelligentsia Coffee that Healthy Soils Compost delivers to us. We turn it, allow it to break down and in about two months it can be spread back out in our beds to provide nutrients to our crops. This process keeps the biological loop as closed as possible on the farm, and reduces the amount of waste that gets taken to landfills.
What do you do with the produce you grow?
GSF donates at least 20 percent of our harvest to Grace Seeds Ministry which delivers it to West Side food pantries run by Marillac St. Vincent Family Services. Our students, 90 percent of whom come from families with incomes at or below the federal poverty level, also bring home fresh produce each week to share with their families.
Are the boxes the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) produce comes in reusable?
Yes- they are reusable if they are in decent shape. These boxes are designed to be used more than once. They have a wax coat that helps keep them from getting wet and keeps them rot-resistant. If you are a CSA member, please do bring your box and plastic containers that are good condition back to the farm so we can reuse them.
Can I volunteer at the farm?
We love having volunteers at the farm! We have a core group of volunteers without whom, I would be quite hard-pressed to get everything done! We do welcome individuals and small groups of volunteers throughout the growing season. If you are interested in volunteering, please email email@example.com and let us know what you would be interested in helping with.