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    This farm reaches new heights

    Two stories above the intersection of Devon and Glenwood Avenues in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood on the North Side and above first floor Uncommon Ground restaurant sits the first certified organic rooftop farm.

    This unique farm was the site of The Chicago Farmers’ 2018 Summer/Fall Program. The September 22nd date was perfect for a day on this organic farm. Blue skies and moderate temperatures contributed to a fun and educational experience for TCF’s group. Coincidentally, the morning of our visit, the rooftop organic farm had undergone its annual audit by the Midwestern Organic Services Association (MOSA).

    Created by Uncommon Ground restaurant owners Michael and Helen Cameron, the 10-year-old rooftop farm is an extension of the couple’s commitment to care for the environment and to provide their restaurant patrons with chemical-free food that is locally sourced. The rooftop organic farm, built on a floating deck, boasts 150 varieties of 70 crops and has 700 square feet of tillable soil. “It is a productive little area,” said Helen Cameron.

    Before climbing a couple of flights of stairs to the rooftop, we visited the restaurant’s patio area, which is shielded from busy Devon Avenue by a tall wooden fence that serves as a backdrop for planters that surround the patio’s perimeter and are filled with organic herbs and vegetables, all of which make their way into the restaurant’s kitchen. Concord grape vines twist around overhead trellises. The grapes are harvested and are incorporated into cocktails, jellies, and syrups. This fall, Helen said, the menu will offer peanut butter and jelly French toast, which is complemented by grape syrup made from the grapes on site. Red and black currant bushes also grow around the patio. The black currants will be used in the making of Kolsch beer by Uncommon Ground’s Greenstar Organic Brewery that is housed in Wrigleyville with another Uncommon Ground restaurant, said Helen. “We surround our patrons with growing food,” said Helen.

    As we made our way to the staircase, Helen pointed out the hops growing on vines that cover the restaurant’s brick wall. The hops too are organic and are sent to Greenstar. The brewery’s craft beer is available at the restaurants. A quick climb up a couple of flights of stairs took us away from the city sounds and sights to the roof, although a traffic light and the top stories of apartment buildings can be seen beyond the roof and reminds you of your location. Keeping in mind Uncommon Ground’s focus on conservation and care of the environment, Helen pointed out three solar panels that occupy a section of the rooftop and noted that the farm’s deck is made of recycled, reclaimed decking material.

    Helen introduced Allison Glovak-Webb, the city agricultural spot’s farm director. “Allison is in charge of keeping the place beautiful,” said Helen.

    Allison pointed out the garden beds that fill the deck and explained they were 10 feet by four feet with one foot of soil depth. They are watered via a drip irrigation system that comes from below and rests atop the beds, releasing a slow drip of water. Watering of the plants occurs twice a day for 20 minutes in peak season, said Allison. These beds produce about two pounds per square foot of growing area. There also are Earth boxes that are two feet by one foot planters that sit at the ends of each bed. They are watered from below via a water reservoir that is filled by hand from above. The Earth boxes provide about four pounds per square feet of produce.

    Allison went on to say that the planters are amended annually with Purple Cow organic compost. Initially, Happy Frog soil was used to fill the beds, but it is no longer organically approved. Currently, if soil has to be added to the beds, Allison uses Sunshine Advanced #4.

    Plants such as carrots, basil, squash, parsley, peppers, leeks, and edible flowers fill the densely packed beds and vines of beans grow on rope trellises that run along the length of the beds. The rooftop farm and the downstairs patio produce about 1,500 pounds of produce per year, said Helen. In the peak season, the two growing areas produce 10-20 percent of the restaurant’s produce. Annually, they produce two to three percent. Local suppliers supplement the restaurant’s other needs. Grassfed beef, pork, and chicken are sourced from Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

    “No one else was doing this when we started the rooftop farm so there was not a prototype,” Helen said. “We developed a system that works. We need to be sure that it is a cost effective venture and we want to be an example. It was important to determine how to do this without chemicals. We figured out the puzzle to make it work and we hired a great farm director, Allison. We selected the crops we like the best and that add a lot of value. We are able to manage the cost of input and the labor. We also have an organic garden on a smaller scale at our Wrigleyville site.”

    Helen’s one regret is that they are not able to compost the debris from the farm because they are in the city and composting is not allowed. The debris is hauled away, but it is costly to have it returned as compost to Uncommon Ground.

    Allison noted that all of the plants are grown from seed; some are planted directly into the planters and others are started in a grow room in the restaurant’s basement. “Most of our summer crops, such as tomatoes and peppers, are started downstairs,” said Allison. “We source our seeds from several catalogues. Among all these catalogues we have more than 3,000 varieties of tomatoes from which to choose. As a result, our organic farm has a large variety of tomatoes.”

    Allison said that she is able to harvest winter vegetables into the first week of December, weather permitting. When the rooftop plants are finished for the winter, Allison said that hairy vetch is used as a cover crop because it pulls nitrogen from the air and deposits it into the soil. It is a vining plant that helps to hold the soil in the beds. In the spring the vetch is chopped up and turned over into the soil.

    Helen noted that Allison has interns who work with her during the summer on the rooftop and patio crops. At the end of their time at Uncommon Ground they complete a summer project. “The young people are learning about growing and harvesting,” said Helen. “We are growing people who can grow food.”

    We ended our visit with a sampling of appetizers available at the restaurant. It was the perfect ending to our day on the rooftop farm.