What would you learn about the world if you spent one season working on an urban farm? What if that farm was dedicated to lifting people out of poverty? To find out, we spoke with three people who did just that.
This season we’ve been telling the story of Chicago FarmWorks, a transitional jobs and food pantry farm on Chicago’s west side where people with multiple barriers to employment work alongside staff to produce thousands of pounds of vegetables per season.
This year, all three on-farm staff members at Chicago FarmWorks were somewhat new to the program. For Urban Agriculture Coordinator, Jessica Surma, and Seasonal Farmer, Andy Novak, this was their first season working full-time at FarmWorks for the whole growing season. For Apprentice, Raissa Scheller, this was her first experience working on a farm altogether.
“It’s more about education and community. We’re growing vegetables and that’s important, but it’s also as important what people are there for.”
It’s hard work. And that’s a good thing.
“It was such a big transition to doing physical labor all day,” said Raissa Scheller, who we wrote about back in August. “I remember the first couple weeks I could barely function after work past taking a shower. It’s not like I’m in bad shape, it just took a while for my body to adjust to that and build up a heat tolerance.”
Although farming is a physically demanding job, especially in Chicago where the weather can be extreme, all three farmers mentioned the sense of satisfaction they have found from their labors.
“When it’s 100 degrees and we’re shoveling mulch, it’s hard work. But you come to work smiling and not dreading to do your work. Nobody likes weeding, but it’s extremely rewarding. You can call it zen-like.”
It’s about people not just plants.
To these farmers, it was important that they worked for a mission-based farm. Chicago FarmWorks fights poverty in two different ways, through a transitional jobs program that helps people find meaningful work, and by growing vegetables for the Vital Bridges food pantry. Unlike an intensive production farm, Chicago FarmWorks is primarily interested in helping improve people’s lives.
“We had to balance the best things to do for the farm with the best things to do for the farm as a job site,” Jessica said. This meant working closely with the participants, not only to make sure work was getting done, but that it was a supportive environment. “I learned it was OK to take time with a participant and slow the pace down. In the morning when people get there, we take time to check in, and at the end, we wrap up and talk about how the day went, even if that means cutting time off farm tasks.”
“It’s a people first farm,” said Raissa. “It’s more about education and community. We’re growing vegetables and that’s important, but it’s also as important what people are there for.”
Manage your time and be flexible.
“We’re one of the biggest urban farms in Chicago but we have a comparatively small staff,” said Jessica Surma. While FarmWorks received a lot of help from volunteers, most of the work fell to the staff and transitional jobs participants. “There’s so much to do you can barely keep up with it and there’s no possible way to get everything done we ideally want to.”
Andy agreed, “a big lesson was time and task management. The joke was, it’s never ending. You think you knock out a big project and another big thing comes in its place.”
Everyone mentioned that time management was an important part of the job. While that may seem a reasonably commonplace job skill, the staff said it encouraged creativity and flexibility.
“But it’s more about adjusting, coming up with creative solutions to get things done. There were these little tips and trick we’ve experimented with,” Jessica said, such as laying down plastic or cardboard sheets for weed suppression. “We’ll see if next year is easier,” Jessica laughed.
“You get people who are just so happy to get here and be doing something, instead of the occasional side job.”
Urban farming isn’t new. Neither is its meaning.
Staff were interested to find that many people working on the farm through the transitional jobs program were already familiar with urban farming. “We found that a lot of people had some experience farming or gardening often as a kid,” said Jessica. “There’s a lot of interest.”
That also seems to extend off the farm and into the kitchen. “Despite what you hear about people not eating vegetables or people being unhealthy, I think there’s a lot of untapped energy to improve our food system overall.”
For Andy, it goes beyond nutrition and education. “There is a deep emotional connection to food and gardening. More people have been around gardens or farms than I realized. And it shows how emotional and cultural food is. It’s a way to bond together.”
A good job makes all the difference.
Chicago FarmWorks works with people who have multiple barriers to employment, some of whom come to the program from long-term unemployment, incarceration or homelessness. FarmWorks may be the first work they’ve had in a while, and that’s a big deal.
“People expressed what it means to them and their family,” said Jessica. “When it was back-to-school time, people were so excited to have money to take their kids to go school supply shopping. They feel the pride that comes when people are able to help their families out.”
“At times I was surprised at how long people have been without work,” said Andy, “and while maybe it’s an adjustment to get back to work, there is a big tie to self-worth with working. You get people who are just so happy to get here and be doing something, instead of the occasional side job.”
Having a good, meaningful job is just as important to the staff as well.
“It’s 100% true for me, too,” said Jessica. “When you go to some kind of social gathering, people are often complaining about their job, and even though I might mention that I feel tired or sore, in the end I’m just so proud to be a part of the work that Heartland Alliance is doing and contribute to the community.”
Dave Snyder is a writer and farmer whose poems, essays and criticism have appeared in Best American Poetry, Gastronomica, Colorado Review, The Iowa Review and elsewhere. He is currently Farm Director for Pisticci Restaurant in New York City. From 2012 – 2015, Dave worked for Heartland Alliance managing Chicago FarmWorks. This year he returns to tell FarmWorks’ story.