Kevin Lindley in one of his high tunnels
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 “I blame this on my Granny Flo,” Kevin Lindley, urban farmer and executive director Green Pastures Eco Community Farm, shakes his head and declares while standing in a high tunnel located on his 5-acre non-profit farm in Chicago’s south suburbs. “When I was growing up, she took me to U-pick farms in northern Indiana and southern Michigan. We would pick beans, corn, strawberries, and apples and bring them home to preserve and share with the family. I don’t know why she chose me, but I was the only grandchild who ever went with her. Those special times helped me develop a deep connection to the cycle of growing, harvesting, processing, and eating fresh food.”

Kevin, a 2016 graduate of University of Illinois Extension’s Master Urban Farmer Training Program (MUFTP), began his farming journey serving seven years as an Extension Master Gardener (2009-2016) in Cook County. His farm is tucked behind a small commercial building just off the busy Dixie Highway in Harvey, Illinois. After securing a fixed cash rent 5-year renewable lease in the fall of 2019 Kevin has been steadily working to prepare the site for production agriculture strategically balancing his risk by acquiring assets and infrastructure while continuing to work off-farm as a low-voltage contractor.

To start Kevin has focused on investments in season extension and soil improvement. He’s used a combination of USDA NRCS EQIP grants, personal savings, donations, and a Fresh Food for Farmers of Color grant to build three high tunnels. After completing the irrigation lines, the tunnels will be ready for fall and winter production. Before growing on a larger scale, Kevin is using cover cropping to improve the native agricultural soil. Cover cropping is a technique used to reduce nitrogen loss, suppress weeds, control erosion, boost the soil microbial content, and improve soil structure. Last year he grew daikon radish to perform bio-tillage to reduce compaction, increase aeration, and to take up and store nitrogen over winter. Late last fall a visitor asked if he would be willing to sell the daikon. Kevin was surprised to learn it was edible and traditionally used in Asian cuisines often prepared as a pickle side dish. He kept the daikon in the ground over winter to do its job but is looking in to the possibility of selling the root vegetable in Chicago-area wholesale markets. Other long-term farm investments include a small pear and peach tree orchard, a Kubota tractor, and a shipping container storage shed. On the wish list for this summer are raised beds and beehives.

In addition to infrastructure, Kevin, currently the farm’s only employee, has been developing a non-profit mission and vision. When speaking about plans he often uses the pronoun ‘we’. “It goes back to my vision of this place as a shared-space cooperative farm. While I want it to be production focused, I also want this to be a space for the community.” Kevin acknowledged he also has a team of family members, volunteers, an organizational consultant, the landowners, other farmers, and Illinois Extension backing him up at every stage. To Kevin urban farming is an essential and universal need that brings people together. “Governments should prioritize support for urban farms” which contribute to improving our neighborhoods and overall quality of life. Whether it is fulfilling a neighbor’s request to grow heirloom yellow watermelon from saved seed or building raised beds for community members to use use Kevin continues to seek opportunities to build connections and refine the farm’s vision.

Kevin’s ability to move forward with his farm can also be attributed to his investment in education and networking. He describes the small farming community exceptionally supportive and willing to share knowledge. “You can talk to a farmer in Wyoming and they can put you on the right track”, says Kevin, “everyone wants you to succeed.” He found inspiration from getting to know his diverse MUFTP classmates who were all striving to grow more food and connect with community throughout Cook County. “Starting a farm is a big step and taking the Master Urban Farmer Training Program encouraged me to see possibilities. It gave me the confidence to take on my dream.” The class also opened his eyes to techniques such as succession planting. “If you understand succession planting and have a tight system it will help make your farm successful. It’s a challenge, but one I enjoy because I know it will enable me to do big things on my urban farm.”

By investing in education, building infrastructure without going into debt, and connecting with his community Kevin is creating a farm of which Granny Flo’s would be proud.

Shhh… it’s (was) a secret: Kevin has never eaten a daikon radish.

Favorite dish: Granny Flo’s Southern Creamed Corn made from corn cut fresh from the cob.

Favorite thing to grow: Leafy greens. They’re loaded with nutrients and grow quickly. They’re also great for succession plantings.

Social Media: Kevin hasn’t created a social media presence for his farm. Stay tuned.

 

MEET THE AUTHOR

Kathryn Pereira is a local food systems and small farm educator with University of Illinois Extension serving Cook County. Raised on the southside of Chicago, her career in agriculture began in 1990 in Mozambique. Later she owned and operated an organic vegetable farm in New Hampshire before returning to the Midwest to earn her Master of Science in Agricultural and Applied Economics from University of Wisconsin–Madison. She regularly volunteers with USAID’s Farmer-to-Farmer Program in southern Africa and is passionate about improving small farmers’ income and quality of life and consumers’ access to local foods. She provides workshops, technical assistance consultations, site visits, and referrals to resources for urban and peri-urban food system projects, organizations, commercial farmers, and residents interested in urban agriculture and local food systems.