January 29, 2015

For the Love of Livestock

3rd Annual Urban Livestock Expo Convenes Prospective & Experienced Critter Keepers on Valentine’s Day

In search of a fun and informative Valentine’s Day excursion? What says “I love ewe” better than taking your date to the third annual Urban Livestock Expo? Angelic Organics Learning CenterAdvocates for Urban Agriculture (AUA), and the Chicagoland Chicken Enthusiasts will present the 3rd Annual Urban Livestock Expo on February 14, 2015 from 10AM to 1PM at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences (CHAS) at 3857 W. 111th Street in Chicago.

The Expo offers new and experienced keepers of urban livestock the chance to learn about caring for a variety of animals, and to network with each other. Presenters with expertise raising chickens, ducks, quails, rabbits, bees, and goats will introduce visitors to primary needs of each, highlighting issues to consider and steps to take in preparation for keeping livestock in the city.

Area urban livestock groups and businesses will staff resource tables in the school’s atrium, with information about further opportunities for learning, support networks, sources of supplies and equipment, and more. As Expo hosts, CHAS students will give tours of the school’s aquaponics center and livestock barn and sell baked goods and plants from their food science and horticulture programs.

Many Chicagoans are creatively weaving together food gardens, livestock, and composting in small spaces. Presenters at the Urban Livestock Expo aim to help city residents do well by their animals and by their neighbors and the city as a whole. Angelic Organic Learning Center’s Chicago Program Director Martha Boyd explains, “Everyone who raises animals in the city becomes the face of urban livestock for other people. We want to help each prevent problems and be the best example possible. The Expo gives visitors a foundation for taking the next steps toward raising livestock of their own.”

Expo visitors are encouraged to arrive between 9:30AM and 10:00AM for registration. Concurrent presentations begin at 10:00AM and continue until 12:30PM. Visitors can browse resource tables and tour CHAS’s livestock barn and aquaponics center throughout the event until 1:00PM. The detailed schedule can be seen at the three sponsoring organizations’ websites. Admission to the Urban Livestock Expo is free, but donations to help cover costs and to support the sponsors’ programs are encouraged and welcome.

Urban Livestock Expo

January 28, 2015

Digging at Dusk: Winter garden preparations in Woodlawn

By Gabriel Piemonte

I’m in an open field just past twilight, carrying a shovel and a bucket I just pulled from my trunk. It’s late December, so the remaining light is quickly diminishing. I’m in an overcoat and a trilby hat. I pull out a pair of gloves from the bucket and put them on. Then I begin to dig.

It wouldn’t surprise me if somebody looking out his or her window found the scene suspicious. The field sits in the center of a city block. It was abandoned by its owner for years before the city eventually took possession of it. For a long time, if anybody was doing anything there, it was probably a little suspicious.

Many might ask, “What is any decent person doing hanging around a vacant city lot?”

Many people reading this probably have an excellent answer to that question. We plant seeds there. We grow there. We celebrate life there.

But not usually at night. Not usually in overcoats. And not usually in winter.

Although I started in a field three-quarters-of-a-mile from the local high school, this story is about Hyde Park Academy – which, despite its name, is in the Woodlawn community and serves the residents of Woodlawn as a neighborhood school. Hyde Park Academy is part of a growing renaissance in Woodlawn in more ways than one.

My moonlight mission is a baby step towards a new urban agriculture project. Last summer, I began an Urban Agriculture Basics course at Hyde Park Academy, with 13 students and two brilliant instructors. I’ve ended up digging in the dirt in December to ensure that we have a more successful program come thaw.


Growing space at Hyde Park Academy in the spring

At the school, we’re rehabilitating a sprawling space that was donated to the school and turned into a green oasis in the ’90s. Unfortunately, it’s been largely neglected since then, but the school’s new principal is eager to see it put to productive use with the help of students.

The space is incredible, but an important piece of the puzzle for our budding growers to learn is how spaces that are considered an eyesore – like a vacant lot in the middle of a block – can be turned into an asset. This coming season, I am determined that we will have a vacant lot to apply the lessons of the class as we go through the process of transformation. To ensure we’re doing right by the community, I’m testing the soil as early as possible for contaminants, so we know whether we have to grow entirely out of compost and whether remediation should be part of our plan.

I’ve been surprised in the past just how much of the land in Woodlawn is in good shape. Nature has healed what people have made a mess of. The problem with a lot of this land is not the quality of the soil but the quantity; there is way more rubble than earth, a byproduct of the fast-track demolition that tore apart the neighborhood for decades.

In recent years, garden projects have become all the rage in the neighborhood. Small plantings line the Metra tracks for about a block in one area. Another stretch of a street in the community boasts three gardens that collectively take up half a city block.

That’s not to say that growing and beautification are new to Woodlawn. Some of this activity has been going on for many years. Small beautification projects are always popping up across the neighborhood. There’s a woman who has attained near-legendary status in the community for her cleanup efforts. She can be seen at all hours of the day and all over Woodlawn – often dressed as if she’s on her way to some fancy event. It seems that, for her, cleaning up her community is a fancy event.

She’s just one of a many-faceted cast of characters that are all working hard in their quirky ways to remake a community that has developed a reputation that has to be overcome before most people can see Woodlawn for what it truly is. In Chicago, the toxic combination of racial prejudice and stubborn associations connected to certain areas conspire to drown out good news with louder shouts about any instance of crime or tragedy.

Not surprisingly, Hyde Park Academy struggles with the same prejudices. But the school is a hidden gem, and the students I have been fortunate enough to work with have impressed me with their intelligence, their generosity of spirit, and their strong work ethic. They are exceptional and under-appreciated.

This is what sends me to this lot just after work, digging frantically in my work clothes while there is still a little light and the ground is still soft enough to dig in. I’ll send the soil off to be tested in the next couple of weeks, and as the ground hardens, I will be dreaming the dreams of growers all over the world in the winter, dreams of tomatoes and peppers and onions and strawberries – with a brand new space to design and grow in.

Gabriel PiemonteGabriel Piemonte is a writer and grower living in the Woodlawn community. He is also the co-founder of the Woodlawn Peace Center Collaborative, an effort to use non-violent action to achieve positive change in his community.

January 20, 2015

Save the Date! AUA’s 2015 Urban Livestock Expo 2/14


Urban Livestock Expo 2.14

More details to follow!

January 15, 2015

2015 Is All About Dirt


By Kathlee Freeman

It’s a new year and with it comes the United Nation’s declaration of 2015 as the International Year of Soils (IYS). IYS, which officially kicked off on World Soil Day in December 2014, will raise awareness and provide education on the impact of soil health on human lives, promote policies that support soil health and encourage sustainable soil practices.

So, why dedicate an entire year to dirt? It turns out, dirt is a huge deal and it’s under threat. Soil degradation, or the decline in soil health due to multiple factors like deforestation, overgrazing and use of agrochemicals, affects 33 percent of the world’s topsoil. That means that topsoil is being depleted faster than it can be replaced and the quality of the soil remaining is diminished.

The loss of topsoil and healthy soils can lead to a host of problems like exacerbating the effects of climate change, polluting waterways and making it hard to grow food. With the global population estimated to reach 9.1 billion people by 2050 The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that food production will need to increase by 70 percent to meet this demand, and we’ll need healthy soil to make it happen. As FAO deputy director general of natural resources, Maria-Helena Semedo, explained to Scientific American,Ninety five percent of our food comes from the soil.”

Here in Chicago, we know about the importance of soil first hand. While so much soil has been contaminated by our region’s heavy industrial past, Chicago’s gardeners and farmers throughout the city are working in different ways to make the soil safe and nutrient-laden. Just to mention one initiative, at AUA we are part of a collective working on creating smart policy which will allow for increased composting in the City.

Events are planned worldwide to celebrate and promote the International Year of Soil. If you’re looking to get involved, the Soil Science Society of America created monthly themes to investigate a different aspect of soil. January’s theme is Soil Sustains Life and includes information about the soil process, activities for educators and videos. You can also support sustainable agriculture and help spread the word about the importance of soil. Finally, be sure to check AUA’s Event Calendar to see what is happening locally.

To quote FAO Director-General, José Graziano da Silvia, “I invite all of us to take an active role in promoting the cause of soils during 2015 as it is an important year for paving the road towards a real sustainable development for all and by all.”

Happy International Year of Soils!

Kathlee FreemanKathlee Freeman is an advocate for just food systems and sustainable agriculture. In addition to working in nonprofit development and marketing, she is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Food Tank: The Food Think Tank. She received her undergraduate degree from DePaul University and is currently pursuing her graduate degree at the University of Missouri – Columbia.