Farm talk: Skokie’s urban farm sprouts to life

Mike Isaacs
misaacs@pioneerlocal.com | @SKReview_Mike
July 29 10:35 a.m.

The Talking Farm

Where: 3701 Howard St., Skokie

Website: thetalkingfarm.org

Future event:The Talking Farm will host its fourth annual Hullabaloo Sept. 20. More information will be available on the Talking Farm website.

SKOKIE — From Howard Street, there looks to be little else other than the Skokie Park District’s Tot Learning Center at this open location off a heavily-traveled road.

The Talking Farm has put up its own sign to indicate there is a live, active urban farm here, but there isn’t much that catches the eye to prove it if you’re just driving by.

It’s only when you pull in and swing to the left of the early childhood center that the Talking Farm opens up to view, that a real urban farm in densely populated Skokie and near the Evanston border beckons.

The Talking Farm has been at 3701 Howard St. for a few years now, but this third season isn’t like the other two, says farm Manager Matt Ryan. For most of the first two years, he says, volunteers did the unsexy preliminary work needed to make the farm thrive — mostly pulling up invasive weeds.

“This is our first real growing season,” says Ryan on a clear July evening, the sun starting to fold in the west and giving the fields a warm golden glow. A small volunteer group has just worked the land for the last hour and makes their way from the Talking Farm so that Ryan is free to lead a personal tour.

“A lot of folks are disconnected from where their food comes from,” he says. “They’re disconnected with how it’s grown and how it’s made and how it’s harvested and what it takes to upkeep it.”

That’s what the Talking Farm aims to change.

A non-profit group that began in Evanston, the Talking Farm acquired two acres of property it leases from the Skokie Park District. The initial plan was to develop property owned by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District even closer to the Evanston border, but it fell through.

The second choice has turned out to be a blessing though. The educational aspect of the farm sits right next to the Tot Learning Center. Tots visit the farm regularly (along with many volunteers) and experience hands-on activities at an early age.

Talking Farm plans

From the start, the Talking Farm’s plans were to grow fresh produce by applying “sustainable agricultural practices” such as crop rotation, companion planting, mulching, natural biocides and non-petroleum-based fertilizers.

But this is the first year it has been able to meet its mission. Ryan reports that the farm has delivered home-grown lettuce to the Village Inn in downtown Skokie, the first Skokie restaurant that has formed a relationship with the farm.

A demonstration garden, a hoop house, rows of crops and other farming components sit on two fields on the property. But the Talking Farm has ambitious plans to ultimately expand in the years ahead.

“It’s been a lot of work already,” says Ryan, “and there have been challenges.”

The Talking Farm folks expected some of those challenges, whether they be overcoming soil nutrient deficiencies, the need for better irrigation or extensive invasive crops standing in the way of healthy harvesting.

“All that being said, we’re still growing our own produce, teaching folks how to grow, distributing to local restaurants and doing what we set out to do,” Ryan says.

Career change

This is the Evanston resident’s first year working as manager of the farm after volunteering for a couple years.

A former carpenter and warehouse manager, he wasn’t satisfied with his “career trajectory” so he decided to make a radical change.

“I really got hooked into sustainability, local food, organics and about educating our community about where our food comes from,” he says.

Ryan went to a nine-month training program on sustainability to learn how to grow before he became manager of the farm.

Now he stands on the farm, leading the way through the cultivated soil — first to the hoop house measuring 20 feet wide by 72 feet long.

“It’s full of tomatoes and extends our season,” he says. “It allows us to plant our tomatoes in early April and then extend the season into late September or early October.”

The Talking Farm land, Ryan says, has never been developed so it’s “completely organic” and “untampered with.”

“It’s basically been sitting vacant for years — since the beginning of time,” he says.

The demonstration garden is meant to illustrate for the at-home gardener different options they can use.

“The home gardener is not going to have row crop production farming, Ryan says. “But they can have a raised bed. They can have container gardening. They can have herbs. This is kind of a display for the community to come and learn in a more practical way.”

The Talking Farm this year is growing kale, cucumber, garlic, beans, carrots, onions, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and more. As impressive as this urban farm already is, its future is likely to be even more so.

The Talking Farm wants to grow five times larger — from its current two fields to 10 fields. Each field has 5,000 square-feet of growing capacity.

It has plans for three more hoop houses, a permanent structure, a greenhouse, different pergolas or gathering places and much more.

“We’re going to need more staff, we’re going to need an education coordinator, we’re going to need a volunteer manager. We want to hire summer youth,” says Ryan.

Talking Farm organizers envision dinners, movie nights, musical events and extensive educational programming for the future. They see a new community resource that attracts people of all ages.

“When folks come out here, they’re getting experience with a farm in an urban place,” Ryan says. “It bridges the gap between where food comes from and the food we get on our table so it has all kinds of possibilities.”

There is much work still to do if The Talking Farm is to meet its lofty ambitions.

But this season — as crops spring from the ground and are available for distribution for the first time, as people eat the vegetables that come from its soil — the Talking Farm has planted the seed for the future.

Tags:

The Talking Farm

Where: 3701 Howard St., Skokie

Website: thetalkingfarm.org

Future event:The Talking Farm will host its fourth annual Hullabaloo Sept. 20. More information will be available on the Talking Farm website.

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