Mike Underdown and Tim Hayes might not be the first names that come to mind when thinking about urban agriculture. After all, they’re known respectively for their work in fiber optics and broadband, not necessarily working the land.
And yet for the Growing Solutions Farm (GSF)*, that’s exactly what they did. By trenching the entire length of the farm from east to west, they brought something valuable to the GSF hoop house – and along with it the capacity for UAS to make a bigger impact.
A Call to Support the GSF Vision
It was during the 2023 Carrots and Cocktails fundraising event held at Growing Solutions Farm that Tim and Mike first met the UAS staff and some of its students. The introduction was made through Allyson Hansen, Executive Director of the Illinois Medical District (IMD), who knew that the expertise and mission mindset of these two men could greatly benefit the farm.
After all, Mike Underdown, CEO and President at Crosstown Fiber, and Tim Hayes, the Operations Manager at Jules Madison, appreciated the mission and dedication of UAS. They understood the direct impact the farm was having on its students’ lives and futures. And they recognized that to stretch this impact further, the GSF hoop house required heat. It was a big undertaking, but it was clear what they needed to do. And they jumped right in to do it.
A Monumental Project
It’s no easy feat to trench lines for gas and electric utilities, particularly when the electrical lines must run the entire farm length – that’s up to 240 feet. But starting in October 2023 when GSF programming was winding down, Tim Hayes, Jim Raymond of Integrated Electric, and their crew spent the next few months laboring at this tremendous task.
And they took care of everything.
The men handled scheduling, permits, transportation of heavy materials, communication with utility communications, electrical work, along with all other requirements this job demanded. As the magnitude of this project took its toll on the property, another partner was brought in to take care of that as well. The team at Plum Valley Landscaping stepped in and generously contributed their services to ensure that the GSF land looked better than before.
When the project was completed on January 11, 2024, there was only one thing left for GSF staff to do: start the electrical service.
How has this charitable act redefined what GSF is able to accomplish?
Tucker Kelly, the GSF Operations Manager, makes it clear that having a heated hoop house is a game changer in the world of urban farming. “It means being able to use our hoop house year-round for both programming and production. We'll be going from a 2.5 season farm to a 3.5 season farm. For farms in our USDA plant hardiness zone, that's a huge deal. Honestly, not many farms in the city have access to a heated hoop house.”
And there’s an additional advantage an extended growing season offers students as well. “We’ll be able to start our own seeds for our own transplanted crops,” says Tucker, noting this was a skillset GSF was unable to explore due to lack of facilities. But with the addition of heat, they’re currently in the process of building seed starting stations and a water catchment system, and direct seeding crops for early spring for this exact purpose.
Not only will an extended farming season allow students to be involved in the growing process through the winter, but it also contributes to a beneficial surplus. This excess produce can be either sold through the GSF farmstand or donated to our students and UAS partners like Marillac St. Vincent Family Services and the Guest House – all who are especially appreciative of fresh leafy greens during the colder months.
Having an extended growing season through a heated hoop house will no doubt have an exponential impact on the vision of Growing Solutions Farm to help young adults with autism gain essential job skills. UAS is incredibly grateful for the generous contribution of time, materials, and energy it took Mike, Tim, and their crew - along with Plum Valley Landscaping - to create something that will make a significant difference in the lives of its students for years to come.
Charitable giving from these champions is the catalyst for expansion of our programming and impact. To directly support our programming, you can donate here, or contact us at email@example.com.
*GSF is a program of Urban Autism Solutions