A 'farm lab' grows in Chicago

Urban farm %u2014 right outside of Austin %u2014 teaching students, building community

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

On a windy Saturday morning at a former soccer field in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood, just outside of Austin, students from Prosser Career Academy (which boasts students from the West and South Sides) and neighbors from the surrounding area have gathered to begin their work digging in the soil.

The students and residents have assembled here for a variety of reasons but all with the same end game – to get something growing. Within weeks, the space will be teeming with corn, collard greens, lettuce, tomatoes and just about anything you can imagine.

Chicago Farm Lab, located in Hanson Park, is in its fourth season and is described by one of its founders, Marnie Ware, a Prosser science teacher, as "two acres of fenced-in gorgeousness."

Ware gives direction to her high school students, planting a tree near one of the entrances of the urban farm. They're trying to make it the same distance as another tree already installed there.

"What do you guys think?" she asks students Daniela Barrera, a 15-year-old sophomore, Christopher Rodriguez, a 17-year-old junior, and others as they place the tree. "Is it the right distance to make it symmetrical?"

Another student uses the handle of a shovel to measure off distance between the tree and entrance.

"You are so freaking innovative," Ware said, praising the teen.

These are the kinds of real-world decisions students are challenged to make at Farm Lab, where they've seen the fruits of their labor evolve over the last several years.

For Ware, Chicago Farm Lab is more than just a space for learning – it's a revolution, a challenge to the status quo.

"Modern people have been divorced from just how things are done," Ware said. "How things are made. 

"We've been domesticated to the point where we don't understand natural systems, and how can we expect our kids to solve problems like global climate disturbance when we're not trying to do it? Another part of this is, OK, how can I say I'm a biology teacher if I don't know how to grow a plant?"

Prosser, one of Chicago's few public vocational schools, provides courses in trades. Several of the students at Chicago Farm Lab are on the culinary track.

Ware describes Daniela Barrera as a "rock star" culinary student. She's been working at the urban farm since last year, and this season is one of the few students given her own raised bed. It's one of 24 plots, which are mainly provided to residents in the neighborhood.   

This year she's planting watermelon and strawberries.

"I just like fruit," she said.

It's her first run at growing watermelon; last year she grew strawberries but the yield was small – only two. 

Barrera says she wants to be a chef someday and own her own restaurant, but still is uncertain what kind of food she would specialize in.

"I'm still planning what I'm going to do," she said, adding that Chicago Farm Lab is not only good for learning lessons about growing – it's brought her closer to her fellow classmates.

"I get to meet people I don't really talk to in class," she said.

Building community is part of the mission of Chicago Farm Lab, between students and the larger community, according to Ware.

"This is a collaborative space; there are artifacts of collaboration everywhere," she said. "It's an authentic collaborative space between students, kids, community members – everyone is a part of this." 

The efforts to grow the farm have been no small task. Ware and her colleagues have worked to secure participatory budgeting funds from Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) and continue to seek money wherever they can.

Kimbal Musk, brother of famed entrepreneur Elon Musk, has contributed through his nonprofit organization Big Green, donating modular garden plots to the lab. It's part of the technology focused direction Ware and others at Prosser want to take the curriculum. 

"My big dream is that Prosser, and other teachers in my building have this similar dream, that Prosser be an urban agricultural hub, that we have urban agricultural classes and vocational shops," Ware said. "Like an updated sort of green technology." 

She said the school's Careers to Education program focuses on getting students jobs in various trades. With the changing nature of such trades, however, the schools need to keep up in preparing students for jobs of the future.

The school is partnering with ComEd on educating students on learning solar technology, for example.

"I have this really big sort of agenda to make urban agriculture, solar technology, hydroponics, those types of things, to update Prosser," she said, adding that the school faculty is "just so passionate about updating." 

"This should be an agricultural hub in Hanson Park," she said.

Though Farm Lab is opening new opportunities to students, it's also bringing residents closer together in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood.

Sydney Prise said he and his wife, Kathy Rosenfeld, have been coming to Chicago Farm Lab for a couple of years. This year they're growing tomatoes. Prise said the space is more than just a place to come get your hands dirty.

"I think gardening is activism," he said, calling it "revolutionary."

"I think the future of the cities is going to be more like the country, and we need to start dealing with the fact that instead of battling over this or that political issue, which are important in the moment, we have to start talking about the survival of our people, of our species, of our human race," he said.

Prise said gardening and learning to do for one's self is a non-partisan issue – something that we can all agree on.

"It's the kind of activism that unites rather than divides, and I think that's sorely lacking now," he said. "Anybody can dig in the soil and make something happen."

CONTACT: tim@oakpark.com

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