Urban ag or jungle ag: Young farmers explore better food systems

By Darby Hopper CHICAGO — Kassie Hinrichsen had no idea she would end up with a farm in a warehouse of the old stockyards district of Chicago. After her graduation from the University of...

Young people are exploring food systems through farming. We compared the group we met while in Panama with an urban farm on the South Side of Chicago. 

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Agriculture, Food, Green Living

By Darby Hopper

CHICAGO — Kassie Hinrichsen had no idea she would end up with a farm in a warehouse of the old stockyards district of Chicago. After her graduation from the University of Minnesota, the 28-year-old moved to South America to work on rural farms in Ecuador and Colombia.

But life took her back to her Midwestern roots, and a Google search for “urban farms in Chicago” took her to The Plant. She was hooked by the start-ups that turn waste into resources and joined the organization in 2013.

The Plant, also called Plant Chicago, housed in a 93,000-square-foot former meat processing business, focuses on circular economies of food production. Hinrichsen serves as the education and outreach manager for Plant Chicago, the non-profit working with developer and building owner Bubbly Dynamics. She works to deliver Plant Chicago’s message — that people should think differently about food, waste and the environment. The focus is on students on the city’s South Side, where The Plant is located, but The Plant attracts visitors from across the city and beyond.  

Seventeen food-producing businesses, from an aquaponics system to a mushroom farm to a kombucha brewery, call The Plant home. The systems are interconnected: for example, spent beer grain from Whiner Brewery and coffee chaff from 4 Letter Word Coffee come together to make bio-briquettes, a fuel source.

“The circular economy promotes rethinking what waste is,” Hinrichsen said.

Across the United States, the number of households growing their own food is on the rise. The highest increases are with millennials: 18 to 34-year-olds are the fastest growing segment of the population to start their own food gardens, according to a 2014 report from the National Gardening Association.

Dave Whitinger, the NGA’s executive director, said that these young people are largely driven by the local food movement.

“They don’t really identify themselves as gardeners but they’re growing their own food,” Whitinger said. “A big reason for that is that they’re not gardening for the sake of gardening; they’re gardening because of the result they get from it.”

The NGA report found that one in three American households grow some portion of the food they consume. But urban areas often do not have the access to land available in the suburbs. Plant Chicago works to make small-scale food systems available to Chicagoans, with an emphasis on its South Side neighbors, through farmers markets and programmed workshops showing people how to farm in small spaces.  

The trends, already visible in American society, have a global reach.

Twelve hundred miles south of Miami, a group of young Americans, Europeans and Australians joined by a few of their Latin American counterparts are establishing an eco-city in the jungles of Panama with farm-to-table agriculture. The village, named Kalu Yala, is dedicated to the pursuit of sustainable lifestyles, an endeavor propelled by the dozens of interns that dedicate ten weeks at a time to learning and doing in the valley.

Kalu Yala offers educational programming in everything from business to outdoor recreation to media arts. The largest program is in sustainable agriculture. Jon Trimarco, the director of the program, started at Kalu Yala over a year ago. After spending two years in Ghana with the Peace Corps, Trimarco, 29, wanted to pursue farming because it links the intersection of humanity and the natural world.  

“A lot of young Americans, a lot of young Europeans are kind of realizing — because, you know, from a generational aspect, we’ve been raised in the cities already and we have that excess and that privilege and we’re already immersed in that environment — we’re kind of realizing that that’s not quite enough,” Trimarco said. “We want a connection with nature and to smell soil and have dirt under our fingernails and we want to work with the rhythms of the land.”

Jonathan Pereira, Plant Chicago’s executive director, also noted the trend, pointing out that every major industrial area in America has a local food movement.  

“In a lot of ways what we’re talking about is becoming more like a developing country in terms of sourcing local, using little energy, minimizing the amount of resources that go in, reusing as much as possible,” Pereira said. “It’s sort of like a developed country with a lot of abundance trying to act as if there isn’t an abundance.”

Trimarco directs his students to develop projects — almost like micro-level start-ups — in the area of the farm dedicated to experimental agriculture. From hydroponics to better methods of composting, Trimarco’s students try out new farming techniques to ideally apply in the “real world” after they leave Kalu Yala. They even created walking trails with edible plants along the way.  

“Ultimately, we want to be asking ourselves, ‘Does this drive us toward a better symbiosis with the environment that we’re in?’” Trimarco said. “Does it lead to conservation in its long terms?”

Whitinger thinks that after farmers markets and home gardens, the future of the local food movement is raising animals — true small-scale farming.

“Anybody can grow tomatoes and anybody can grow a lettuce or a spinach or something like that,” Whitinger said. “That’s really the next step, to get more into being more self-sufficient: raising your own animals… A lot of cities are changing their ordinances to allow people to keep hens in their backyard. That’s where a lot of the excitement is heading right now.”

But while permaculture — agriculture systems designed to mirror sustainable natural systems — is great for individual homes or small communities, it cannot scale up to address the problems of the world’s demand for food, Trimarco said.

“How do we take these really cool, fun, often quirky food-producing systems, like aquaponics, how do we make that stuff actually work on a global scale?” Trimarco said. “Right now, we’re in a situation where, globally, we have the vast majority of food that’s produced, especially in places like the U.S., in ways that are not really sustainable, especially in terms of soil health or in terms of environmental degradation or even just in terms of promoting human health.”

That reality is especially true when it comes to the world’s cities, according to Pereira. Pereira said that efforts to utilize local farms and avoid waste, particularly in the United States, move cities in the right direction.   

“You have to account for the importing of big grain products — corn, wheat, soy, things like that — into cities to be able to exist,” Pereira said. “(But) the local/regional food movement happening in a lot of cities driven by high-end chefs, in particular, is exciting… You can pick pretty much any major city and there’s probably a culinary movement there to source local.”


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