Incubator farmers tending to field of dreams in Chicago

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Education, opportunity, and resources are key ingredients to success.  And thanks to a federal grant, the Chicago Botanic Garden is offering all of those things to a few budding urban farmers. As part of a pilot program, two Chicagoans have been chosen as the very first so-called Incubator Farmers.  They’re receiving training and financial support as they attempt to turn their fields of dreams into successful small businesses.

“If you don’t catch it early it’ll take over in a second,” says incubator farmer Darius Jones.  It’s suffocatingly humid, in the mid 90’s, and Jones is covered head to toe.  Learning how to dress is just one of the many things this Garfield Park resident learned during nine months of training at Daley City College through the Windy City Harvest program.  Darius’s budding business is called Urban Aggies.  “I’m an entrepreneur by spirit. So, the opportunity to invest in myself is really intriguing.” “He understands the market side of farming,” says Angela Mason, Director of Windy City Harvest. “He has a real desire to work with an underserved community and get food to community members that don’t have access.” Not long ago, Jones was sitting in Cook County Jail for aggravated carjacking.  He went outside only four times in 15 months when he was offered a chance to work in the garden on jail property. “You know it’s more than just the training and the opportunity.  I think it’s also you know- it’s mental.  A lot of these guys have that mental block that they stop whenever they get into situations where it’s uncomfortable.  And like one of the most important things I was ever taught like while doing this program was that if you not uncomfortable you’re not doing something right.” Jones works at least 20 hours a week on his Garfield Park garden space, while also working full time promoting Windy City Harvest farmers markets.  That connection gives him income and a support system as he pursues his dream of one day owning his own farm and a small grocery store. “His energy and passion for what he does is really infectious,” says Heidi Joynt, owner of a fresh flower business called Field and Florist.  “And I could tell that he was gonna be around longer than just the program.”  Joynt is paving the way for Darius Jones.  She became the very first incubator farmer last summer after years of working at the Chicago Botanic Garden teaching teenagers how to grow vegetables.  But her passion is growing flowers. “It was kind of a low risk environment to give it a shot. And that’s I think the beauty of the incubator farm program it allowed me the flexibility to really you know give it a good go and see where it went.”  A simple cup of coffee at this Lakeview bike and coffee shop at 2959 N. Lincoln Avenue led Joynt to not just a new market for her flowers, but more space to grown them. Joynt provides fresh flowers for the tables at Heritage, and the owners let her use two acres on their family farm in Barrington Hills to grow dahlias, now in full bloom. “She’s just so passionate,” says Heritage co-owner Melissa Salvatore. “And I think that’s what comes out in her product.  I mean you have to love what you do no matter what part of life it is, falls into and she just has that.”  Melissa and her husband Mike were trying to grow their new business too.  They bought an old bus and turned it into a pop up shop for revolving artists of all kinds, including Heidi. “It’s been really easy to sell flowers to florists or just brides who are looking for a local product and that’s been the most fun.” Windy City Harvest’s Angela Mason says the incubator program is really taking all the pieces that a beginning farmer will need, and putting them in one place so they can be successful. “Creating new farmers and creating opportunities for new farmers is helping to grow the local food economy.”  Back on the West side, Jones is seeing bumper crops.  And he just found his first market, selling produce to the nearby Inspiration Café.  “I had a couple old friends and acquaintances come by and help me do some work.  Which was really eye opening for me.  A lot of people are very supportive of it.  Because I was really bad, so me being really good, they see the change.  And they are very supportive of it.”

The USDA grant has enough money to help other urban farmers get started. You can find out more about the Windy City Harvest program – and find both Darius and Heidi by clicking the links below.


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