In the form of a subscription vegetable business called Produce, I spent this past summer farming across the sprawl of western Chicago land on three distinct sites. Traversing 50 miles behind the wheel of my farming sedan, watching the landscape change, and my agricultural responses shift gears. Pests, water, access and soil – all of these basic agricultural scenarios fell into a gradient, parallel to that of the changing rural to urban surroundings.
What follows are some simple observations of the farming I did while shuttling back and forth on this rural – urban continuum. Some reflect the farming act itself while others revealed variations in our habitation of the built environment.
Four agricultural samples extracted from three sites:
- The rural: A ‘garden’ on the edge of industrially produced corn and soybean farms
- The suburban: A community garden on corporate property (an annex and landscape ‘dump’ of the corporate campus)
- The urban: A cooperative urban farm on vacant North Lawndale land
About 50 miles southwest of Chicago, a small side road lies just south of the BNSF train tracks. The road leads to a gravel driveway and up to a farmhouse, shed and barn – all are unlocked and accessible by hand, by foot and by curiosity.
. . . . . . .Several gallons of gas later to the east, an off ramp of the highway 88 leads to a frontage road. A quick left across two lanes of traffic halts abruptly at a drive width steel gate, pinned shut and draped with a chain link – unlocked, but mechanically and visually closed. A minor inconvenience to put the car in park and swing back the gate, but no digging in my pockets required.
. . . . . . . 18 miles further to town with a mid-trip shift to the 290, an exit to the south, and arrival at a vacant lot surrounded by cyclone fence and secured with a chain link, ritually and methodically woven in and out of the fence and locked with pad and key. The chain is heavy, awkward and stains my hand with a metallic scent.
A giant heave upward on a weather worn steel lever activates the pump. It draws water for my cultivation, freely draining the aquifer below. Water flows through a hardware store compilation of seasonally permanent irrigation hoses and valves . . . .
. . . . steps removed from the source, water is stored in a steel tank, periodically refilled with a mobile water truck by the corporate grounds crew. Gardeners fill 5-gallon buckets and tread lightly so as not to lose a drop of these 35 precious pounds as they haul them to individual plots. They tell themselves this is the last strain they will place on their backs to save transplants from the dehydration of persistent drought conditions (done hopelessly as the rains never do come. . . .)
. . . . piped through about 8 miles of urban infrastructure from its fresh water lake, a special hydrant ‘key’ regulates this high pressure system to accommodate a common garden hose, which is fed over a concrete half wall and through the fence to the ever thirsty, grid formed beds beyond.
2000 square feet of old garden plot and 2000 square feet of old hog pasture, untilled since the mid-50’s and fallow for the last 10 years. On my knees, breaking into this ‘old’ and very well developed soil, unthreading the perennial grass roots of this stable quilt. Thick with clay, but loose and crumbly, a result of untouched decades. A sample accurately characterizing ‘crumble:’ compact yet tender particles grouped together in civilized clods that tumble and scatter upon subtle pressure. The civilization of soil being its 50 year solitude!
. . .my 3 of the 36 total community plots: all dense with clay, compacted by years of heavy machinery tilling over them and dumping loads. Hard, nearly lifeless, devouring cover crops and mulched leaves yet still cracking under drought pressure . . .
. . . . . a new soil, hovering at grade, created within the last two years with supplemental horse bedding and manure. Loose and fast draining, making it exceptionally difficult for me, a commuter, to achieve germination in. Challenges that significantly limited production to a minimum of drought tolerant crops, and those cultivated in conjunction with a dear friend who tended to the site daily.
Surfacing from an agriculturally saturated countryside, thick-bodied, grumpy faced hornworms, the size of a large thumb, camouflage as tomato stems while they wait to chomp through the fruit in the setting sun. Cucumber beetles feast far beyond their typical cucurbit targets, devouring unlikely plant neighbors like sunflowers, perennial grasses and other local species (commonly called weeds). Startling for sure and exhausting to say the least – as a child’s butterfly net and shop vac are employed to harvest masses of beetles in one sweep. The harvest dissolved to make a ‘bug juice’ concentrate that, when sprayed, theoretically repels further infestations. The fruits of a farmhouse apple tree directly adjacent to the vegetable plot, so pocked with holes they are hardly salvageable beyond applesauce, juice and home consumption. Meanwhile the profusion of deer prompts a wave of arched wire cages to spread across beds of tender lettuce, baby carrots and beets.
. . . . . As the peripheral spaces between box homes on quarter acre lots and recreational forest preserves increasingly fill with chronic landscape plants, the tender lettuce still falls prey to deer. Yet the isolation of an apple tree on the median near a subdivision entrance is stunning – large juicy fruits, nearly flawless and beckoning from the limbs. The only nuisance being pest-y glares from within sealed cars presumably due to the oddity of procuring food from a non-packaged source, or possibly aimed at a harvest on common, public land.
. . . With built density competing for agricultural real estate, the physical access limitations of pavement dominance and fences on property lines become straight-forward controls for deer. Occasional losses to the resident pheasant or rabbit are solved with abundant production, growing enough to share with the local wild life. Squash bores and beetles thriving, yet behaving predictably on their commonly sited hosts.
Having interacted with the land across this spectrum – I wonder about appropriate or ideal relations between humans and the land they occupy. As I search for a final plot to remove the transience from my farming, I take note of the concerns which influence farmers in their selection of farmland: living fictions, inheritance, utility, property taxes, lifestyle preferences . . .
Where as the allure of urban agriculture may lie in its apparent contradictory terminology, the bucolic homestead may fail to function with real economic self-sufficiency. Will we be guided by fictions where the simple act of sustenance production takes on an intriguing new-ness or nostalgia? Or is it more important to be focused on practical matters such as diverting pest concentrations and scattering our production across the region, exchanging urban orchards with rural grains, beans and squash?
Contrary to common identifications of place and space, the urban and the rural are continuous and integrated. Having driven the road, I can imagine this coordinated geographical dispersion of agricultural activity, where we understand the specific conditions within this sprawling field and as network of farmers, we synchronize our efforts to create a regional food system in which rural AND urban agriculture has a respectable place in the schemes of regional plans and development. With some land luck, I’ll trade my sedan for a bike and cart, and settle a planet within that farming constellation. In the meantime, I’ll be eying and snatching from the isolated fruit trees along the way.