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Urban farming behind Extension’s Cook County expansion

Published February 23, 2015
Zack Grant, right, former manager of the Sustainable Student Farm and Mike Gray, a professor of crop sciences and assistant dean for agriculture and natural resources. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

URBANA, Ill. - With consumer interest surging in local foods, urban farming and sustainable agriculture, the time is ripe for U. of I. Extension to cultivate Cook County, Illinois.

Extension recently expanded its Local Food Systems/Small Farms team of educators to include Zack Grant, who was the manager of the Sustainable Student Farm on campus until stepping into the educator position with U. of I. Extension at the beginning of February.

Grant is passionate about agriculture, working with growers and sharing his knowledge with others interested in gardening and small-scale farming.

Thus, when Extension began looking for an educator to grow its urban agriculture program in Cook County, Grant was the natural choice, said George Czapar, associate dean and the director of U. of I. Extension and Outreach.

“Agriculture is a big economic benefit to our state, and urban farming and local food production are ways to reach new audiences,” Czapar said. “It’s a pretty exciting time, with the interest people have in knowing where their food comes from and even getting involved in producing it. We view this as generating a whole new generation of farmers interested in growing food.”

Grant is one of 16 educators statewide affiliated with the program, which was established as part of Extension’s reorganization process in 2011. Ten of those educators, including Grant, were hired since the reorganization.

“We have a lot of new, young people on this team who have really worked well and jelled together nicely,” said crop sciences professor Mike Gray, who also serves as the assistant dean for agriculture and natural resources with Extension.  “Quite honestly, these are busy folks. There’s a lot of interest on the part of the general public to consume food grown locally. There’s strong demand. I’m certain we did the right thing in establishing this team.”

Urban farming is a new focus for Extension, an organization that traditionally concentrated on large-scale commercial agriculture production in Illinois, especially corn and soybeans, Gray said.

“There are other land-grant schools that have similarly themed urban agriculture teams, but having this type of educator in an urban, concentrated area like Cook County is relatively new,” Gray said.

When state budget constraints prompted Extension’s reorganization in 2011, Gray saw opportunity for growth.

“I didn’t want University of Illinois Extension to just get smaller,” Gray said. “I said, ‘Let’s look toward the future. There’s tremendous interest in urban agriculture and local food production, and there are increasing numbers of folks who want to engage with small urban farming.’”

The Cook County region – and Chicago, in particular – is especially fertile ground for these types of programs, Grant said.

“Cities such as Detroit are investing heavily in functional production of foods within the city confines,” Grant said. “And in Chicago, there are food deserts, underserved areas where urban food programming is really relevant, and numerous vacant lots that could accommodate community gardens, as well as actual food production businesses.

“There’s also the whole environmental, urban green space, sociocultural aspect of urban agriculture. I think there’s always going to be a need for that, in addition to giving people within the city limits access to locally grown foods and connections with their communities.”

Crop science professors Sarah Taylor Lovell and Sam Wortman conduct research on the environmental challenges of urban agriculture – such as soil contamination, soil remediation and water quality – in Chicago neighborhoods.

 Grant, who has worked with both faculty members in the past, hopes to initiate new Extension programming based upon their work.

Urban agriculture has taken root in the Windy City under federal programs such as the Farm to School initiative and additional projects promoted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel aimed at reducing or preventing child obesity and making fresh, healthy food accessible to people in low-income neighborhoods and food deserts.

Through the Farm to School program, Midwest agriculture producers are partnering with Chicago Public Schools to bring fresh produce from farms in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin to the cafeteria trays of students in the city’s schools.

“Over the past year, we’ve looked at that program,” Gray said. “We want to make sure we have a presence in that area, but we wanted whoever filled the educator position to have some broader responsibilities, particularly in urban agriculture, and Zack has an excellent skill set there.”

Another program that presents opportunities for Extension is the learning gardens project, which installed 100 gardens in public schools throughout Chicago. The gardens function as outdoor classrooms and provide physical activity for students.

Both programs present opportunities for collaboration with educators and school staff members on curriculum development, Grant said.

Grant had been doing kitchen gardening and small-scale urban farming for several years when he came to Illinois to start the master’s program in natural resources. 

In 2008, when Grant was turning in his master’s thesis, the interim department head asked if he’d be interested in managing the Sustainable Student Farm.

The experience of building the farm from the ground up – which included marketing, recruiting and overseeing a small army of 200 to 300 volunteers during the academic year, installing irrigation and high tunnel systems, and collaborating on research and outreach with Extension educators – was good preparation for his new position, Grant said.

Over its first six years, the Sustainable Student Farm flourished, expanding from its original 2-acre plot to its current 6 acres. An additional 10,000 square feet of high tunnels extend the growing season to about 10 months a year.

The majority of the farm’s produce is sold to University Housing’s Dining Services for consumption in campus residence halls, and the remainder is sold directly to consumers through a seasonal farm stand, which operates from May to November on the Quad, south of the Illini Union.

Matt Turino, who was assistant manager of the Sustainable Student Farm, is serving as the farm’s interim manager.