David Durstewitz

City Farm


David Durstewitz is the sales manager of City Farm on the Near North Side. Please consider making a donation to support educational urban farming; you can find more information here.

Tell me about City Farm.

City Farm is a project of the Resource Center, which is a environmental education non-profit that’s existed for the past few decades in Chicago. It started around the concept of approaching things that are seen as waste as resources instead. So broken glass in an empty lot, that’s raw material in a space that has potential. City Farm is founded on that principle, that we can take things that are thrown out and make them productive and healthy.

The site that we’re on, for instance, is an old broken lot that was part of Cabrini-Green. There was a gas station on it at one point, and broken concrete underneath. All that was capped over with clay, which is a waste material from downtown construction. On top of that we put horse manure from stable cleanings, straw, and wood that breaks down over time; and compost that we produced from restaurants, cafeterias, stores around the city, any food scraps, meat bones, whatever. Things that would normally be thrown in the trash. We turn them into a rich, healthy, organic growing medium, which is pretty rare in Chicago. We replenish it a little bit each year because we’re growing intensively on this site.

Aside from making physical use of the resources around us, we’re also trying to create a model for local food production, for a local food system that is based on people who know each other, people who interact with each other. Your compost feeds into my growing, my growing feeds into your compost, et cetera. Creating healthy food, organic food, the best tasting food that you can get. All from what is seen as a very unusual setting. But even in the fifteen years or so that City Farm has been around, we’ve seen a huge upswing in urban agriculture in this city and others.

How long have you been operating at Clybourn and Division?

This farm has been here for ten years. The house that you see just to the north was the site of our old farm. Part of what we attempt to do is bring food, jobs, and resources directly to people, especially people who need them more than others. Again, this is very recently post-Cabrini-Green: a lot of poverty, a lot of hunger, a lot of in-access to healthy, organic food. When we started that site it was very intentionally there, and when we moved it that was also intentional. We want to be able to respond to needs as the demographics of the city change.

We have one newer site down in Washington Park; another that we built is now operated by Sweetwater Organics, also in Washington Park. Those are both over the past four, five years. Down at 70th and Dorchester we’ve been recycling and composting, and now we’re growing. There’s also another site there that has been grown in for decades. Those are all part of our production.

What specifically do you grow here?

Mostly vegetables, and we’ll occasionally do vine fruits. Our intent is to produce as much as we possibly can, so we have a very intensive planting and rotation schedule, a lot of inter-planting. For that reason we do mostly annuals. We have a few perennials in the southeast corner, some rhubarb, some asparagus that get better each year. But as far as producing the largest volume and greatest value we end up growing a lot of kale, a lot of tomatoes, a lot of onions. We grow garlic down on the South Side site every year.

Our biggest customer base is restaurants, so also things that they want as fresh as possible. Lettuce that hasn’t had time to wilt, edible flowers, arugula flowers that taste best within twelve hours of being picked, things that are difficult to get from traditional farming--- or what we currently think of as a traditional farming system. Finally, things that are just popular to have in large qualities: kale, beets, carrots, radishes, turnips, mustard greens, collards.

What is your background? How did you get involved with City Farm?

I studied psychology and music at Dickinson College, a little college in Pennsylvania Amish country. Going out to the college farm ended up being my refuge. Helping with whatever work was needed, singing around the campfire, that kind of thing. When I moved to Chicago I wanted to stay involved with that. I was excited to learn about places like The Plant, very site-specific approaches to urban growing. I’m from upstate New York originally. I did not grow up on a farm. I think in early childhood I liked getting out in the country more. In my teenage years I liked sitting in front of my computer more. [laughs] This job is both of those, too.

I got involved as a volunteer at some of those farm sites and and City Farm, and as that Washington Park site became closer and closer to a farm project the Resource Center was looking for somebody to help run it. I had been volunteering, and guiding volunteers, for a while so I ended up training with Ken Dunn, the head of the Resource Center, and Dave Henderson and Dan Hurowitz, two former City Farm managers. I was also learning from other people, naturalists and botanists, community gardeners, and people who grew their food in their backyard. Over the years I’ve learned more and more, and here I am now.

Why is urban agriculture important to you?

I’m a Type I diabetic, so food has always been at the forefront of my mind, whether I like it or not. Eating appropriately, eating healthily, and being very aware of what is in my food. I absolutely need to be for my own health. I started working in restaurants as a teenager, and I think there is a kind of logical progression that I wouldn’t have seen at the time.

My grandfather also studied pomology, he had intended to get into orchard management but was interrupted by the war, and so in some ways now I look at it as a reclamation of that and a rejection of war. Growing up my grandmother grew tomatoes in her urban plot. My mom grew flowers and was concerned about the soil in our suburban plot, so coming here and seeing the solution to those problems resonates with me.

Generally speaking, what kind of people want to work on a urban farm?

I don’t know if it’s an even split but I see two main groups. One is people who grew up farming or around agriculture and moved to the city for greater variety and culture but still miss something of that lifestyle. The other group is more ideologically driven and specifically interested in creating a local food system and homegrown jobs in a city that has large patches of joblessness.

Purely volunteers? Half-and-half?

This model does create jobs, and we aim to be self-supporting. We’re always either a little over or a little under, it’s a difficult business to run but we do attempt to stay competitive. We have full-time and part-time paid staff members, we have a few people who help with administrative things as volunteers, and we have paid administrators at the Resource Center office as well. As far as distribution of labor, it might be 50/50 paid and volunteer. Certain things like establishing a regular harvest and delivery schedule with a restaurant is not something that we’re going to trust to a volunteer. Weeding is something that can be done a little more sporadically: today we had a group of twenty, twenty-five people pulling weeds, hoeing, spreading out woodchips. They love the exercise, love the environment.

A lot of people are looking for an opportunity to get their hands dirty in the city. Get outside and work among greenery, people say it’s really relaxing. We have volunteer groups coming by as well, or people dropping in and asking to help with weeds. The Resource Center is an educational non-profit, so we want to be highly visible. People see that we’re here and want to come and learn more about farming, learn more about growing. Maybe they’ve got a balcony garden and this is somewhere they can come ask questions while working alongside us.

You mentioned supplying restaurants. What are those relationships like? What demands are there?

Rick Bayless has been a partner of ours for a really long time, and Paul Virant--- these are people who already recognize the value of fresh, local, organic food. They don’t need to be sold, they’re eager for whatever we can produce for them. Frontera uses a ton of habanero peppers. Last year wasn’t a great year for habaneros, it was too cold, but our hoop houses were full of them. They were able to get a lot of peppers from us in spite of the seasonality. Some like to have access to arugula flower, green coriander, and other things that farmers typically don’t produce for them. We’re able to respond very quickly to what chefs want by tailoring our planting and our harvesting.

Are you concerned someone’s going to buy this lot and build more condos?

Well, that’s already happening. A developer bought it from the Chicago Housing Authority for that reason, and they’ve been allowing us to continue on this site, for which we’re very grateful of course. We will be moving a block west at the end of this year, and that is a huge process, a lot of investment in money and labor.

When urban agriculture started taking off in Brooklyn, for instance, a lot of people found that as soon as they built something it would be taken away. That’s something that we experience here as well. A lot of farms are on the South Side or the West Side for that reason. We want to be visible, we want to be where there are people who can see, come in and have access to produce. If we need to move we’ll move, but we’re not going to avoid that problem, we’d rather take that head-on.

I read somewhere that in San Francisco they're enabling easier access to land for farmers who will commit to at least five years. They want this kind of site to be a permanent thing, and that makes sense to me. Composting is another first step that we all need to get on board with. We have organic material here that’s been breaking down for ten years. To plant directly into that barely composted waste material ten years ago would’ve produced crap. But when you get time to develop the bacterial cultures, the fungal cultures, the organic material that’s coming in from the plants and the worms working through the soil, we create a much better and healthier environment for growing. When we have to move we lose some of what we’ve gained over the years. It would be good to have the support of the city, or large organizations, to stay rooted in place.

What are the environmental challenges urban agriculture faces?

People used to grow in their backyards. That was a major part of food production, even in the city. There’s still a few of those around. I was in a garden in Pilsen, this old Polish woman whose grandmother had owned it started growing herself and so she’s still eating a considerable amount of food out of that. The difference is, her grandmother was eating much healthier food because she didn’t have a century of industrial pollutants dumping toxins into her soil.

When we allow the health of our soil to be stolen from us we force ourselves into a very unsustainable food system: trucking in food from bucolic Michigan on a truck that’s spewing out waste. Bringing it to a supply center full of trucks spewing waste and putting it into a refrigerator powered by coal. People do wonder about urban farming: is this food poisonous? And right off the top of my head, is it more poisonous than the food at the grocery store? [laughs] With synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and fungicides and herbicides, all coddled around your strawberry seed.  From the baseline we’re starting from, yes. This is healthy food.

Practically speaking, how do you deal with the pollution found in urban soil?

There’s two major approaches to that. One is remediation, which I’m very supportive of. Technology is rapidly growing, and there’s still there’s still a lot to learn about it, but people will use oyster mushrooms or sunflowers, find various ways to get toxins out of the soil. I think that’s really what the entire city should be doing, at all times.

The second approach, the one that we take, is to cap everything. That clay barrier doesn’t allow any leaching upwards and also keeps in the water from the rain so that we’re not wasting as much water from the city, and not using as much chlorinated water. That’s probably the more common. People in home gardens, or community gardens, create raised beds with a bio-soil of some sort, some kind of barrier between that and the ground. With the immediacy of our need for a local food system, capping is beneficial. And we have, as a society, made certain advances--- no more leaded gasoline, for instance--- that make it healthier and safer to grow in an urban environment.

The recognition of the rights people should have, to not have poisons pumped into their growing space is another thing that urban societies need to address. We need to be focused on reclaiming control of the space that we live in, seeing our sidewalk as a place to eat from and not a place to dump things. We sell lamb’s quarters at the market. It grows wild as a weed all over Chicago, but here it’s grown in organic soil so you don’t have toxins to worry about. People like the flavor of it and my hope is that then, the next time they see it growing in a toxic, broken lot, they say, “That’s food that I can’t eat. Why is that? Who took my ability to eat that food away?”

Do you see small, family-owned urban farms becoming a sustainable industry?

I think so. First of all, if you’re growing your own food you don’t have to buy food. Even if you have enough to trade, there are certain ways we can negate the need for money. But that said, there are self-supporting farms in the city. There’s a few that are grant-supported as well, but it’s mostly because they’re taking on an educational role where they’re not necessarily employing the best farmers that they can find in the city, but employing people who want job experience or farming experience.

An experience I’ve had with the South Side sites is that there are a lot of people that have a strong understanding of the benefits of organic produce but really just don’t have access to it. The price point is set too high, or their grocery stores are too far away, and they’re not able to get access to it. The first step to that is to get rid of that inequality. If you want access to organic food you should be able to have that no matter who you are or where you come from.

What we do is we’ll sell at higher prices to restaurants and at the farmer’s market in Logan Square, but if someone from a housing project comes in and says, “I need a bag of collards for the 4th of July,” we’ll ask, “What can you pay for this?” I think that’s a much larger economic question. Our competition, such as it is, is highly subsidized. Say you buy collards for $3/pound from us, and $1/pound from Aldi, you’ve already paid for those collards at Aldi in your taxes. And you’re paying in environmental degradation and health degradation--- in a very real, concrete, financial sense that pops up later in your medical bills.

There are a lot of people that this resonates with. People up the street in low-income housing have a small plot set aside for growing and they come over here for plants and advice. We offered free compost to people in Washington Park who wanted to build their own backyard gardens, and tons of people came by for that. Tons of people. Just by starting that farm we increased the interest in food, recognition that yes this is food you can still get, even though the prices at the store may be too high.

There’s a lot of restructuring that’s needed to make this model not only viable but competitive. It should be compelling for not just a small driven group of people, but for the majority of people. For this to be the norm there needs to be a lot of change. I hope that we can create a greater sense of investment in the land around us.

What are your thoughts on urban agriculture’s ability to grow things not normally available in the Midwest?

If you’re eating truly seasonally you’re eating a lot of beets, and carrots, and all winter you’re eating a lot of stored root crops. We’ve grown winter storage crops that are actually buried under a layer of leaves, insulated from the cold, and it produces a great crop. Similarly, in the hoop house we’ll grow spinach in the winter and it’s the best spinach we grow all year. So there are certainly ways we take advantage of our location. I don’t necessarily want to be going out on a hundred-acre farm in winter to do that, but you know, when I can go home to my city apartment afterwards it’s not as big a deal. [laughs]

I am more interested in a societal shift away from saying, “I need this apple, it looks this way, tastes this way, and I need it now, and I need it six months from now, and I need it to be exactly the same way at both of those times. So go ahead supply system, do what you can to produce that.” And that leads to an unsustainable food system of trucking things in, flying things, shipping from all over the world, even if it’s an apple you could grow in your backyard.

What people have done in the past is they’ve preserved very extensively, they had a root cellar and a pantry full of jars. Maybe they had more of a taste for the acid of sauerkraut, the different things we produced when we were committed, whether by need or by some ideological drive, to eat fully seasonally. As sustainably as possible. Certain chefs in the city do this: Perennial Virant is a restaurant that does a ton of preserving and so they’re able to serve the highest quality vegetables no matter what, year round.

That’s something our society as a whole does need to re-examine and get back into. And somehow lose that desire for an unseasonable apple. [laughs]

City Farm