Down On The (Urban) Farm

Growing Home, an urban farm on the South Side of Chicago.
City Farm, an urban farm on the South Side of Chicago.

Our search for delicious food is taking us all over ... including places you might not expect. Rita Braver has been down on the urban farm:

Mary Seton Corboy loves showing off what she grows:

"We grow eggplants, peppers, beets in the spring and all different kinds of greens."

She showed us some fat figs. "You know that a fig is ready to go when it pulls away very easily from the sun."

And in the eggplant section … "This is a Sicililan eggplant," she said.

"Really purple, wow," remarked Braver.

But she's equally proud of where she grows it: On a once-vacant one-acre lot in an inner-city neighborhood near downtown Philadelphia.

She bought the place ten years ago for $25,000 and dubbed it Greensgrow Farm:

"And weren't there some environmental problems when you started it?" Braver asked.

"Well, that was why it was so cheap!" Corboy laughed. "This was a galvanizing plant."

Land once polluted by arsenic, lead and zinc has undergone a massive clean-up. As an additional precaution, everything here is grown either hydroponically or in raised beds filled with organic soil.

Corboy, a former chef, is at the forefront of a nationwide trend known as the urban farm movement.

"Yeah, they say it's a very short distance from fruitcake to pioneer, very short," she said.

The idea is to turn a city's vacant lots into green spaces:

"What we offer people is food that's been harvested," Corboy said.

Greensgrow, a non-profit that makes enough money to pay its 11 employees, sells produce right on site.

"Is it better than the supermarket?" Braver asked one shopper.

"Oh yeah, hon', it's great, and the beans and the corn is fabulous."

But most of the food produced here goes to restaurants, like Standard Tap, a local gourmet pub.

Chef Carolynn Angle often builds her menu around Greensgrow produce, like these heirloom tomatoes. "It's straight from the farm and it's beautiful product," she said.

"I love supporting that, and they're doing a great thing for the neighborhood."

And it's not just in Philadelphia. Urban farms are blossoming all over the country, including in Chicago.

On a plot of land between the city's upscale gold coast and the notorious Cabrini Green public housing project, Ken Dunn runs City Farm, what's called a "mobile farmstead," on city-owned land.

"It's a deal that we agree to clean up, beautify and protect a property that they own, in exchange for a lease, no payment," Dunn said. "And so they get a lot for what they give us."

The farm - the second that Dunn has developed on city land - is self-supporting. He likes the idea that he can put vacant lots to good use … until the city needs them for something else.

"That was the agreement," he said. "We can do this if you tell us where to put our farm when you use this property again."

Chicago also has permanent urban farms, like Growing Home on the city's South Side.

It's not just crops that are nurtured. There's also a program that employs and trains the homeless, recovering addicts and ex-cons.

"When you're growing food, planting that seed and seeing it grow, it has a huge effect on people, said executive director Harry Rhodes.

People like Paris Brewer, who was in jail for 13 years and nine months. What has working at Growing Home done for him?

"It kept me grounded and rooted," she told Braver. "Just helped me all the way around. I like everything about working here."

Now he is the farm's market coordinator.

And Brewer knows how to work the crowd, at Growing Home's stand at Chicago's Green City Market.

"Good morning, just come check us out!" he offers.

And though the people eagerly buying may not know the stories of those selling the food, they are aware that everything here is produced with tender loving care … right in their own city!

For more information visit:

  • Greensgrow Farms
  • Growing Home, Inc.
  • Resource Center Chicago
  • Chicago Green City Market
  • Standard Tap