By Brooke Fallon
You know the power of government officials has grown too great when they can pass laws to urge rooftop farming while banning much more commonsense farming in open lots throughout the city. Yet that is exactly what the city of Chicago is doing: saying you can take dirt, move it to a rooftop and “farm” there, but you are banned from farming where the dirt normally resides—in any of the many open lots throughout the city.
Across Chicago, some neighborhoods enjoy multiple grocery stores and weekly farmers markets while residents in other areas don’t have convenient access to fresh fruit and vegetables. Politicians and community organizations have dedicated time and money to addressing this problem but have so far failed to solve it. Some entrepreneurs in Chicago have, however, offered a possible solution: Why not take vacant lots in the city and convert them into commercial gardens? These gardens could include farm stands—to sell what they grow—as well as “farm share” programs that would allow local residents to eat the fruit of their own handiwork, and sites that allow consumers to pick what they wish to purchase fresh from the field. All this would allow more communities local access to fresh food while creating much-needed jobs and refurbishing the vacant lots that plague many of Chicago’s low-income neighborhoods.
To most, this sounds like a great idea, but the city of Chicago prohibits street-level commercial gardens and farms. You can have one on a rooftop but not in the most natural place for farming—on the ground.
IJ Clinic client Chicago Patchwork Farms experienced firsthand the legal roadblocks created by the city’s inconsistent municipal occupational licensing and zoning codes. Owners Katie Williams and Molly Medhurst were looking to start an urban farm in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, where they have resided for eight years. “We started Patchwork Farms as a way to earn a living doing work we love while meeting one of the most fundamental needs of our friends and neighbors—healthy food,” Katie explained.
So, Katie and Molly found a piece of unused land, got the owner’s permission to farm there and then went to City Hall to find out how to make their dream a reality. What they found is that Chicago does not think about opportunities like entrepreneurs do. Where Katie and Molly saw a void that needed to be filled, Chicago saw a business that did not fit neatly into the city’s outdated licensing categories and simply told the problem-solving entrepreneurs to try something else. According to Katie and Molly, when they spoke with the city about their idea, they were told that the best they could do is to be licensed as “food peddlers,” selling (but not growing) fruits and vegetables from a wheeled cart (but not a motorized vehicle) and relocating every two hours. No land in the city is zoned for a farm, so the city deems it illegal.
Now the IJ Clinic is doing what it does best—navigating Katie and Molly through the murky waters of Chicago’s complex licensing and zoning schemes.
Entrepreneurs like Katie and Molly should be able to adjust their business to the needs of their customers, instead of being forced to conform to the confusing regulations set forth by city bureaucrats. Urban farming is a fundamental example of entrepreneurship that can benefit an entire community. Humans have been farming for the past 12,000 years; it’s time for Chicago’s municipal code to catch up.
Brooke Fallon is the office and community relations manager of the IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship.