The real dirt on community gardening in Chicago, food waste composting and Farmer John’s KickStarter Campaign

January 27, 2013

Building a community for community gardeners

It has not been a great year for gardeners in the City of Chicago.

It didn’t help that we were blasted by heat and drought last summer…and given how odd the winter and spring were, going into the 2012 growing season, I don’t even want to speculate what will happen this year. However, all one has to do is look at how little moisture we have had in the fall and winter so far this time around to know that things could be dicey come time to plant in the spring.

In addition, some of the things that allowed gardeners to gather together to commiserate about their disappointments and celebrate their accomplishments have disappeared. I’m talking in particular about the Mayor’s Landscape Awards Program, which was last presented in 2011 and which awarded my community garden, Green on McLean, a third place prize that year. So, after 50 years of giving gardeners in the City a sense of pride, the program was quietly dropped by the Rahm Emanuel Administration.

This year, there is another casualty: The Green and Growing Fair. For 20 years, this event was sponsored by GreenNet, Chicago’s Urban Greening Network, and featured a variety of vendors, workshops, demonstrations, and family activities as a way of launching the gardening season in Chicago. Fortunately, the GreenNet website is still an excellent reference for people who want to start or connect with a community garden.

These two gaps in the opportunities for gardeners to expand their knowledge and connections are on top of the dismantling of the Chicago Department of the Environment at the beginning of 2012 and the downsizing of the Greencorps Chicago Program, Greencorps staff and graduates (now under the Chicago Department of Transportation…huh?) were a valuable resource for community gardeners throughout the city until last year. Here’s the way it reads on Greencorps page at the City of Chicago website:

We would like to take this opportunity to thank all of the community gardeners who have worked tirelessly making their communities greener, healthier and safer.  Over the past 18 years, Greencorps Chicago staff and trainees have worked side-by-side with you, supporting your efforts while admiring your dedication, resilience, humor and cooking.  For 2013, due to reduced funding levels, Greencorps’ ability to support community gardens will be reduced.  With that in mind, we are planning a summit this winter with a variety of greening partners to develop a transition plan for this vital work.  Please check out the GreenNet’s Growing Forward effort at to stay involved.  Greencorps staff will also continue to work with community gardeners to assist in connecting them to organizations or other gardens in their area where resources may be available

In fact, I just attended the 2013 Greencorps graduation ceremony at Garfield Park Conservatory. It was sad to see that a class that had, in the past, numbered as high as 90 was down to 22 this year.

But gardeners are a resilient lot, and even as some good programs disappear, others rise up to take their places. Openlands, which already has its very successful TreeKeepers Program, is creating an interactive, hands-on class focusing on gardening without chemicals, using designs that depend on nature and not technology, conserving natural resources, and recruiting members who will use and “own” their garden.

It is called, not so surprisingly, GardenKeepers, and the goal is to teach its members how to organize and run a successful, long-lasting, community-managed allotment garden together with friends and neighbors. It doesn’t matter whether you already have an existing garden or you’re at the stage where you’re recruiting people and looking longingly at the empty lot on the end of the block.

GardenKeepers will be presented twice a year but, you should note, It is designed for groups, not individuals. A minimum of 4 people from each garden is suggested. The fee is $300 per garden ($75 per person in a group of 4) for the entire series of 6 classes. However, individuals may be able to attend horticulture-focused classes 3-6 if space allows.

The Spring 2013 course is taking reservations right now for classes that will held at the Garfield Park Conservatory. Here’s the schedule:

  1. February 16 – Getting Started
  2. February 23 – Special Event: Chicago Community Gardeners’ 1st Annual Planning Conference 
  3. March 2 – Creating a Sustainable Organization
  4. March 9 – Eco-Garden Design
  5. March 16 – Growing From the Ground Up
  6. March 23 – Plant Selection for a Healthy Garden
  7. March 30 – Containers, Hardscape, and Installation
  8. May 11 – Graduation Potluck

Now, about item #2, the Chicago Community Gardeners’ 1st Annual Planning Conference, or as my buddy and community garden worker Rob Kartholl (a.k.a. @Copedog on Twitter) likes to call it, The Big Commie Garden Conference. I kind of like that title, which means that powers-that-be will hate it.

Anyway, The Big Commie Garden Conference will be a day-long event at the Chicago Center for Green Technology (CCGT) that attempts to bring together community gardeners all over the city to hobnob and discuss issues like water conservation, fundraising, sustainability of both the land and the people who work it, and more.

Julie Samuels, Community Garden Organizer for Openlands, returns to the show today to talk about GardenKeepers and The Big Commie Garden Conference. Copedog is also on hand to throw in a few comments.

By the way, Julie is the go-to person for registering for GardenKeepers. You can write her at if you have questions, or just go to the GardenKeepers page for more information.

What is an “F-scrap” and what do we do with it?

Some statistics from to think about on a cold January day:

  • Did you know that we generate 21.5 million tons of food residuals annually? If this food waste were composted instead of being sent to landfills, the resulting reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be equivalent to taking more than two million cars off the road.
  • The Z-Best Composting Facility in Gilroy, processes 350 tons of food waste and yard clippings everyday into nutrient rich soil amendments to be used for agriculture and landscaping.
  • Almost any business can successfully divert food discards from landfills. Businesses with record-setting food diversion programs are recovering 50% to 100% of their food discards and reducing their overall solid waste by 33% to 85%.

Now, welcome to Illinois, where, until the passage of SB 99 a couple of years ago, we were in the dark ages regarding food waste–often called “F-scrap”–composting. It was very difficult and often prohibitively expensive to obtain a permit to compost food scrap commercially in Illinois because those facilities were considered “Pollution Control Facilities” under Illinois law.

While that bill made it somewhat easier for composting operations to succeed, as witnessed by this effort at Illinois State University and this pilot program in Highland Park, we still have a long way to go, especially where small operations are concerned.

Which is why it’s the upcoming Illinois Food Scrap Composting Seminar “Looking To the Future” in Lombard on Thursday, February 7, 2013 is such a good idea. The day-long seminar on composting of food scraps is open to just about anyone–businesses, schools, landscape services, greenhouses and others. Heck, even I’m going to be there.

It will cover the latest information on Illinois policies and legislation, markets and potential end uses for compost materials. Some of those topics include

  • how to establish and manage food scrap collection and composting programs
  • identifying end users and viable end markets for finished composted material
  • pertinent policy in Illinois regarding F-scrap compost operations
  • reports on results growing plants with compost material and lessons learned by those with established programs.

This event is made possible through a grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity (DCEO) to the Illinois Recycling Association (IRA) who have worked with  SCARCE (School Composting and Recycling Conservation Education) and the Illinois Green Economy Network (IGEN) to develop and co-sponsor the seminar.

It’s not at all expensive for a day-long event. IRA members and college students get in for $30, while all others pay $40. But wait. There’s more! Cost includes lunch and seminar materials. A great deal.

You can Register online here or learn more at or 708-358-0058

I’m pleased to have SCARCE founder and executive director Kay McKeen back in the studio to talk about this event–and perhaps all of the other great things that SCARCE does, from book, ink jet and gym shoe rescues to cell phone and electronics recycling to providing information on how to properly dispose of medicines.

The Real Dirt on Farmer John’s KickStarter Campaign

If Roger Ebert is tweeting about you to his 800,000 followers, and posting for another 104,000 on Facebook, you know you’re doing something right. Here’s the Twitter message (which I have already retweeted): “We showed his film at Ebertfest. Now Farmer John is kickstarting. Here’s a video about this hero of organic farming.”.

If you follow that link, it will take you a KickStarter Campaign called Barns Are For People, Too, featuring the now-legendary Farmer John Peterson. He’s the guy who is behind Angelic Organics in Caledonia, Illinois, a farm that has been in his family for generations. That story was told in the 2005 documentary The Real Dirt on Farmer John, which has received just about every award imaginable, and which I can’t recommend highly enough.

Last week, I received a notice from Tom Spaulding, Executive Director of Angelic Organics Learning Center, which arose out of Farmer John’s efforts and which I have often talked about on my radio show. He informed me of the KickStarter campaign, and I knew immediately that I was going to have to invite him and Farmer John to the show.

You should know, by the way, that I MC’d a fundraiser at the farm last fall, and Farmer John took me on a somewhat bumpy tour of the land in his Jeep. That was an experience in itself. Now I want to return the favor and help the good folks out there continue to teach new generations about the land and how to grow food sustainably.

The KickStarter is all about completing the work of transforming the old dairy barn and corn crib into community spaces, as Farmer John says, “filled with light and vibrant colors and breathtaking views of the Midwestern prairie.” He says he has about half the work done and he needs $150,000 to finish the project. Yeah, that’s a lot of loot, but who told you that running a farm and not-for-profit organization was cheap?

I will be making a contribution. I hope you do, too.

Wild Things 2013 Conference is next Saturday

Just a reminder that the fifth biennial Wild Things 2013 Conference happens next Saturday, February 2 at the UIC. This wonderful event, featuring about 90 different sessions, is organized by Audubon Chicago Region in cooperation with the Habitat Project, the Volunteer Stewardship Network, and Chicago Wilderness through funding from the USDA Forest Service and US Fish & Wildlife Service. It also doesn’t hurt that organizations like the Chicago Park District, The Field Museum, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and Openlands are involved.

The keynote speakers will be Doug Tallamy, who continues to preach the gospel of biodiversity, and Joel S. Brown, who speaks on how urban species might be evolving. Here are the abstracts of their talks.

While online registration is now closed, I don’t think anybody is going to mind if you walk in the door thirsty for knowledge about our natural areas and their inhabitants. It’s only $40, or $25 if you’re a student. The full schedule is here.