Somebody Give This Guy a Genius Grant

Ken Dunn embodies an American ideal of intelligence, an extraordinary melding of farmer and philosopher. He just might be the smartest man in the city. And he grows magnificent tomatoes.

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Dunn would be paid a great deal more if he were compensated for each of the functions he performs. On the way to the yard at 70th Street, he had noticed a decrease in pressure on the left side of his truck’s air suspension. So while the compost was being loaded, he pulled a pocket tool set out of his trousers, detached the faulty line, and patched into the system on the right side. The Resource Center bought the truck new in 2000, and as Dunn springs back into the cab, he says he is glad he put that redundancy in the specs when he bought the vehicle.

And then it’s back to Plato.

“He mentions that you have to watch out for two things to have a stable society,” Dunn says, shifting gears and pulling out of the yard. “You want to avoid unequal power and riches among individuals, because that produces jealousy. And you also want to eliminate haves and have-nots, both with things of value and with freedoms. And I would say that our society is unsustainable because of the power relations we have going. Some religions would like to dominate or eliminate other religions, some philosophies would like to eliminate other philosophies, but I think that individuals on the planet should have equal rights or power and authority over their own person-an equal right to benefit from their activity.”

Undoubtedly the most visible of the Resource Center’s activities-and, in some ways, the aspect of the organization that most thoroughly demonstrates Dunn’s particular genius for navigating city bureaucracy while promoting sustainability-has been City Farm, a series of organic gardens planted in vacant city lots. To create ideal growing conditions at each site, workers truck in a layer of clay to keep any existing contaminants from reaching the plants, then pile on ten inches of manure and a foot or two of compost and mulch. The first garden was planted in the early nineties.

Currently the largest City Farm plot is located in the triangle of land at the intersection of Clybourn Avenue and Division Street, a high-traffic area between the new Dominick’s-anchored shopping center and the remains of the Cabrini-Green housing complex. The farm is an appealing oasis of greenery and lush order in an area that, despite ongoing development, remains somewhat bleak. Dunn and his colleagues started the Clybourn Avenue site in 2002, and next year their land will be halved. And after that growing season is over, they will have to leave entirely, because the city plans to develop the parcel. It’s all by design, though: By negotiated agreement, the city will not uproot a City Farm site during growing season, but when it’s time to go, they go.

Dunn acknowledges that urban agriculture has the most potential for spreading the word about sustainability. “You don’t have to dislike factory farming to recognize you’ve got something when you can take food waste to enrich soil to produce food and keep the cycle going,” he says. And you don’t have to care about any of that to know a good tomato when you bite into it.

The several dozen varieties of tomatoes grown in the City Farm’s plots serve as its greatest ambassadors, in part because most tomatoes sold in grocery stores do not compare. “The tomato has become a tennis ball,” Dunn says. “They get harvested all at once by a mechanical machine. They bounce around in the machine and into their transport hoppers like tennis balls. They can undergo shipping, refrigeration, and storage, and voilà! there’s your tomato. Except that it doesn’t taste anything like a real tomato. And its nutritional value is not anything like that of a good tomato.”

Dunn’s partner, Kristine Greiber, who serves as the program director of City Farm, spends the bulk of her time here at Division and Clybourn. She is easy to spot as she zips around town in a bright red Honda Insight, a high-mileage hybrid vehicle, taking along the couple’s three-year-old son, Soren (although Dunn is an admirer of Kierkegaard’s work, he insists that he and Kristine just liked the sound of the name). Kristine, 38, who grew up on a small dairy farm outside Madison, Wisconsin, met Dunn when she was a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute and began volunteering at the Creative Reuse Warehouse. She was drawn to Ken, she says, simply because he was “faster, stronger, and smarter than all the other guys around.”

 

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