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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.

(page 4 of 5)

 

The operation attracts a number of volunteers-David Banga, for example, is in his second season working on the farm. A ceramic artist with a master’s degree from the University of Utah, Banga moved to Chicago with the somewhat misplaced hope to learn about farming. “I didn’t think I would be able to,” he says. “At first I figured I would be working for the park district taking care of whatever they would have in the parks. I was lucky to run into these people.”

Banga became a full-time employee last year. On a quick walk around the grounds this past spring, he pointed out seedlings of radishes, melons, pumpkins, and tomatoes. A number of salad greens-arugula, claytonia, mâche, mustard greens, and spinach among them-he noted, are planted on the northern edge of the plot to benefit from a microclimate created where a building adjoins the property along its northern edge. “The sun hits right on this white wall and reflects a bit, and if you go anywhere near the wall you can really feel the extra heat,” Banga says. “And it radiates probably for another two hours after the sun goes down. With winegrowing, [the microclimates] have mostly to do with hills and valleys. Here it’s buildings in the city.”

That morning, Banga had sold five pounds of lettuce, at nine dollars a pound, to Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, perhaps the most prominent of the restaurants the farm supplies. The chef of the River North establishments, Rick Bayless, is dedicated to buying local goods, including oak for its fireplaces (from pallets the Resource Center has broken down) and a variety of organic lettuces. But above all he buys tomatoes-about 6,000 pounds of them each year. And like other customers past and present (including chefs from the Ritz-Carlton, North Pond, Lula Cafe, and Scoozi!), Bayless insists that quality is the motivator. “That’s how we got started with them,” Bayless says. “We were looking for freshness and flavor, and they gave it to us.”

Bayless shares Dunn’s manic energy and his drive to create something better, but he is careful to note where the similarities between them end. “I’m not a fighter. He’s a fighter. I’m an entrepreneur,” Bayless says. “The guy is one of the most amazing visionaries who have ever lived in this town. But I have seen him crawling around in dumpsters. And it would be a very special day to find me crawling around in our dumpsters.”

Dunn stands with a friend amid tended plants at one of his South Side yards.

Ken Dunn’s hands are perpetually dirty, and they have been for a long time. He grew up on his family’s farm in a Mennonite community in west Kansas, a place where he “absorbed the values required to live an ethical life,” he says. The community essentially governed itself through a group of elders whose focus was to prescribe the right and proper care of plants and animals. The Dunn family’s main crop was wheat, with a healthy chunk of alfalfa and sorghum. They also owned a few hundred head of beef cattle, which they fattened for consumption in the great steak houses of Wichita. “We had a very good thing going with one restaurant,” Dunn recalls. “In their advertising, they once used a slogan: ‘You can be sure our beef is Dunn right.’” All told, the farm had close to 500 acres.

Dunn’s mother died when he was three, leaving him to be raised by his father. When Dunn was about 12, his father suffered a severe heart attack, and Dunn and his brother, a year older, began participating in the farm’s major decisions. Seeking to increase productivity, the brothers began moving toward factory farming methods, buying larger equipment and using chemicals. “What we discovered was that, just below the layer we used to till, was developing a compaction layer. And the county agent said, ‘Well, you are going to have to start subsoiling,’ which is using a tool that loosens the soil down to 36 inches deep. That’s recommended every few years, but whenever you need to loosen soil down to that depth you need a bigger tractor. You get your bigger tractor so you can do this loosening, and then you have to keep doing it because that tractor weighs more so you have to do it more often. And once you start using chemicals to battle your enemies, then you are starting a constant battle. Factory farming has these cycles that are self-perpetuating.”

Dunn realized that what he was doing with the family’s farm was not good for the soil or the crops, a notion that led him to larger questions and eventually to Bethel College, a small school near Wichita associated with the Mennonite Church. He played football there and graduated with a degree in psychology and philosophy in 1964. Fresh out of school, he “decided that the world was so enamored of technology and corrupted by forces that make people make the wrong decisions” that he ought to seek out a simpler society. His choice was the Peace Corps, and an assignment “totally in the backwoods” of the Upper Amazon of Brazil, where, he says, he felt he could begin to “build a life based on values.”

Of course, to be an effective Peace Corps volunteer in Brazil, you have to learn Portuguese. So he did. Dunn was in Brazil for three years, developing agriculture and lumber programs, riding his motorcycle, and spending most of his time with a native Amazonian, “sort of a shaman in their tradition.”

 

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