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Illinois urban farm fosters sense of community pride




Illinois Correspondent


ROCKFORD, Ill. — Often called a solitary occupation, farming is anything but lonely at a small, urban farm in Rockford.

The Rockford Housing Authority’s Blackhawk Court is home to a roughly 14,000-square-foot urban farm that serves a multitude of purposes – employment, education and nutrition – for a large number of the area’s residents.

Ron Clewer, CEO of the Rockford Housing Authority (RHA), said the small farm was established about five years ago.

"Working in partnership with Angelic Organics and the University of Illinois Extension in the past couple of years, we’ve advanced the farm beyond just a recreational effort," Clewer said.

Although the farm at Blackhawk Court is the largest, he said two other family sites in the city have raised beds for gardening, and most of the high-rise buildings have patio or container gardens.

Spencer Ellsworth of Angelic Organics said the farm provides job development, education and produce to sell at the farm stand.

Yatte Moore, a Blackhawk Court resident, serves as one of the farm’s manager.

"I worked my way up," Moore said. "I started a couple of summers ago working in the garden for community service to pay my rent."

At that time, Moore said he worked in a factory across town.

"I like this a lot better. It’s in my backyard," he said with a smile. "I like this type of work. I’m still using my hands, but I can see things growing."

Moore said the operation may look small, but 40-50 different vegetables are harvested throughout the season.

"We already harvested cabbage, and we’re putting a new crop there," he said pointing to the open plot. "We’ve got onions coming in, tomatoes, collards, turnips."

Moore’s brother, Desmond, showed the area where the food is cleaned and processed before it’s sold to the public.

Workers have sinks and running water available under a shelter provided by tarps between a couple of large storage units.

"We’ve had a couple of focus groups to see what people would like for us to grow," Desmond Moore said. Cooking classes also are offered to teach residents new ways to prepare vegetables that may be unfamiliar to them.

Admitting it’s difficult to get people to attend, Desmond Moore said word of mouth has traveled, increasing attendance.

Program director Danica Hoehn agrees that it takes time to build participation.

"We put up fliers, but word of mouth is most effective," she said.

Blackhawk Court also serves as one of the CSA (community-sponsored agriculture) pick-up locations for Angelic Organics.

Hoehn said focus groups have shown the need for more fruits, leading to aggregate farming, where fruit is purchased from other stateline-area farms.

Yatte Moore said a few fruit trees have been planted around the perimeter of the farm, as well.

During a recent farmstand day, several young people joined urban farm educator Katie Townsend to provide a tasting of salads prepared with vegetables grown on the farm and homemade dressing.

Fourteen-year-old Tamaria Smith said she’s learned to cook, to use different kitchen tools and that she likes teaching.

"It’s fun to teach others," Smith said. Her career goal is to teach, she said.

Townsend said each demonstration highlights foods from the garden available that particular week. Smith is just one of the many examples of youth taking a strong leadership role, Clewer said.

Justin Pugh, 12, said he works in the garden three or four days a week.

"This gives me something to do other than just watch TV," said Pugh, adding that his father, Jay, also volunteers.

"Adults are becoming more involved on a day-to-day basis," Clewer said. "It has opened them up to working with their neighbors and sharing knowledge.

"It’s a great opportunity, serving a multitude of needs," Clewer said.