With a green thumb and a passion for community building, Jessica Surma creates impact through farming as the manager of our Chicago FarmWorks urban farm. For Jessica, success is all about growth – and she finds it in all aspects of the job.
What got you into this work?
I always knew that I needed to have a job that gave me the opportunity to work outside. Before running FarmWorks, I spent a lot of time working in environmental education and policy. It was great, impactful work, but I my passion was to have a direct impact on my local communities. I grew up around here, and when I learned about urban agriculture – and the impact it has on providing job opportunities, food security, and community engagement opportunities, it was a no-brainer.
I started volunteering at a lot of local farms and gardens and working a lot in food-security – and eventually I jumped at the opportunity to help run 2 acres of urban farmland when Chicago FarmWorks popped up.
Why is this work important to the community? To the people we serve?
I find it is really important to use the space a community already has – whether it be a vacant lot or abandoned building – and transform it and turn it into something positive. FarmWorks serves as an outlet for jobs, food, and a community coming together. That gives people something to be proud of in the neighborhood.
East Garfield Park can get a lot of bad press, and this shows that there is more to this incredible neighborhood than what the papers write about. Similarly, green space gives people the chance to heal, grow, and thrive. It’s incredible seeing people who were down or unwell spend a few hours a day at the farm, and we watch them change dramatically.
On another note, many pantries don’t have a lot of healthy food options. This program was able to provide over 37,000 servings of fresh produce to our Heartland Alliance Vital bridges food pantries across the city.
Was there a moment where you KNEW you were in a job that was right for you? Could you talk about that?
I spent years looking for the job that I wanted – and finding a place that will pay you for your passion is a special thing. I knew pretty early in the job that I was in the right place. We were doing our first honey harvest (we have a few bee colonies), and we had so many folks from the community excited to receive that honey and see the results of our care and work – it was really special.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I love seeing the transformations in people that come to our program – both in their interest in the farm and in their confidence to work. It’s invigorating to see people get excited about growing food and enjoying the life on the farm, as well as finding the confidence to speak with supervisors and employers. It sort of happens all at once, and it really is fulfilling.
How can others help your work?
We’re always looking for volunteers! We’ve got monthly volunteer days. We’re also happy to have corporate, church, or school groups come out. Click here to volunteer.