Dave Snyder, FarmWorks farm manager, showed where hoop houses and raised beds will be on the 2.6-acre area where transitional workers will grow produce.
Leo Ware spent too much of his life cultivating drug customers on Garfield Park street corners, he says. Now he’s trying to cultivate something better in his neighborhood.
The six-time convict and native of the West Side neighborhood is helping The Heartland Alliance break ground at Chicago FarmWorks, the newest urban farm in the city.
Leo Ware, a 46-year-old father of two, is one of 30 individuals with multiple barriers to employment who the nonprofit organization will assist each year by providing transitional work experience through the 2.6-acre plot of land next to the Kedzie Metra stop – an area with an unemployment rate around 35 percent.
“A lot of the individuals we work with have been formerly convicted, have been homeless or are low-income and need another opportunity to serve as a platform for them to transition from poverty to self sufficiency,” said Haydee Nascimento, Heartland Alliance’s associate director of employment and economic advancement.
She emphasized that the workers aren’t defined by their past and that there is a place for them in society, an approach that motivates Ware on a daily basis.
“Through Heartland they showed me it’s not about the convictions, it’s about what I’m willing to show and how hard I’m willing to work,” Ware said.
The workers, who earn $8.25 per hour throughout a 12-week program, are expected to grow 24,000 pounds of produce in the first year including potatoes, carrots, radishes, peppers and onions among other more durable vegetables. The majority of that produce will go to the Greater Chicago Food Depository to feed families in need.
“Rather than giving people fruits and vegetables, we teach them how to grow fruits and vegetables so that they can eat for a lifetime,” said Ald. Walter Burnett, Jr. (27th), whose ward is the site of the farm. “But not only eat for a lifetime. They can feed their families and their neighborhood.”
The city-owned plots of land, larger than two football fields combined, are located in the middle of a food desert, surrounded by corner stores and empty lots filled with trash. The area slotted for the farm would have otherwise been just another empty lot. Farm manager, Dave Snyder, worked with others to remove 400 gallons of garbage to prepare for the ceremony.
“If this was an empty lot, people would dump couches in here,” Snyder said. “We found entire bags full of garbage. By putting a garden here, people will respect the space.”
The ground isn’t quite ready, though. The dirt needs to be capped with gravel and three feet of soil to create a safe environment for the produce. Two hoop houses and rows of raised beds will be built where fresh flowers will accompany the colorful fruits and vegetables.
Snyder is expecting the first full harvest in March or April of next year, but plants are already budding in a local green house.
To start, he and one farmer’s assistant will work with six individuals in transition at a time to fill the ground. That number could grow as the farm expands for large-scale production, he said.
While training is the focus for those in the grant-funded program, Snyder says the experience offers much more.
“We make meaning in family and meaning in work,” he said. “So I see this transitional job program as an opportunity to give people meaning. I derive meaning from this work too.”