Chicago Botanic Garden


Urban Farmer Incubator Program Grows Hope

PHOTO: Windy City HarvestHave you heard the one about the urban farmer?

At the Chicago Botanic Garden, it's a serious question.


Instead of a punch line, a number of unfunny obstacles face graduates of the Garden's Windy City Harvest certificate program who want to make a living from raising vegetables in the city. Challenges included high start-up costs, limited access to land, and unproven business skills.

A possible solution is being piloted with the upcoming launch of a three-year training and incubator project made possible by a $750,000 grant from the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA. "It's a huge deal because it's taking our program to that next step where we're actually creating small business owners. It's among the first urban farmer incubator programs in the country," said Angela Mason, director of community gardening.

PHOTO: Windy City HarvestThe centerpiece will be a new farm site of raised beds at a mixed-income housing development, Legends South, at the site of the former Robert Taylor Homes on State Street. During 2013 a small-scale pilot of the program will take shape at other Windy City Harvest production locations. Then, beginning in spring 2014 at Legends, two beginner or "incubator" farmers will be given use of a quarter acre of land, access to tools, and on-site mentoring. Windy City Harvest will buy the incubator farms' produce and sell it through existing networks until the growers establish their own relationships with buyers. The goal is for these new farmers to gain the entrepreneurial skill, knowledge, and professional networks to succeed in business.

Those chosen to participate are graduates of Windy City Harvest's nine-month certificate program in sustainable horticulture and urban agriculture, conducted in partnership with the City Colleges of Chicago at the Richard J. Daley College/Arturo Velasquez location. They will also complete a local food entrepreneurship certificate course where students learn about different types of business entities, marketing research, distribution, accounting, zoning, and more.

tomatoesThe newest 14-week Windy City Harvest course begins in October. It is expected that some enrolled students will want to farm, while others will prefer some other path within the local-foods world. New certificate courses in aquaponics, extended season growing, and roof-top gardening, among other topics, are being developed.

PHOTO: Safia RashidWindy City Harvest graduate Safia Rashid, a granddaughter of Mississippi farmers, believes the entrepreneurship course will help her realize the dream of urban farm ownership. "When I see a vacant lot, all I can think is, What can I grow on it? People still don't have enough food to eat—and the food available isn't fresh," she said. "That's what I think about: feeding people, being stewards of the land."

The certificate program and incubator farms support a broader objective, to help relocalize our food system, said Patsy Benveniste, vice president of education and community programs. "The Garden is committed to building environmental sustainability in all the ways we work with plants, from how we grow food to how we manage landscapes and create green infrastructure. We are educating people for real careers in urban horticulture and agriculture—either as independent operators or as skilled employees."