The Urban Farmers
by Jennifer Wehunt
HARRY RHODES AND ORRIN WILLIAMS
In 2006, the only signs of life at 5814 South Wood Street were the weeds that had pushed their way through the broken concrete. Casual observers would have seen just another deserted industrial lot in hardscrabble West Englewood. Harry Rhodes and Orrin Williams saw the potential for growth.
Both men are pros at coaxing life from arid sources. Rhodes, 49, is the executive director of Growing Home, a nonprofit that uses organic farming to provide job training for hard-to-employ individuals. Williams, 59, is the organization’s case manager and new projects director. In 2002, Growing Home harvested its first crop of vegetables from a ten-acre organic farm in LaSalle County, thanks in part to the labor of nine men and women Rhodes recruited from homeless shelters and paid minimum wage to work the land. “We had this idea that getting your hands dirty and seeing something grow could really help change people, but we had no idea how it would work,” Rhodes says. “We saw that people quickly became engaged. They felt like it was theirs: their farm, their chickens, their tomatoes.”
Seven years later, Growing Home has graduated about 130 trainees; about 80 percent of them have been homeless at one time or another and about 90 percent have been incarcerated. In addition to the certified organic farm in LaSalle County, the nonprofit now operates an organic garden in Back of the Yards and, as of 2008, a year-round urban organic farm on Wood Street. The fruit of all this labor is available at Green City Market in Lincoln Park, at a seasonal Wood Street farm stand, through a booming home delivery program, and at the Englewood Farmers Market, which Williams launched in 2008 with the help of students from Lindblom Math & Science Academy, his alma mater.
A key figure in Englewood’s long-term plan for community development, Williams sees the farmers’ market as the first step in a string of green ventures that will bring new life and jobs to the area. But in a neighborhood devoid of grocery stores, and with little access to fresh produce, the market is like a leap. Next up, he says, is a garden center and micro farms that Growing Home grads can lease and cultivate on newly donated vacant lots.
“We’re trying to build a model that others can use,” Rhodes says. “There’s a word for that: ‘coopetition,’” Williams adds. “Some people say they’re scratching the surface. We’ve just landed on the surface. The potential is huge in terms of food, let alone green manufacturing and the green economy. We haven’t even started scratching yet.”
Photograph: Erika Dufour