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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.

    2018 Study Tour Provides an Enjoyable Education on Norway

    By Jim and Jeff Ward

    Our group of 31, the largest study group in Chicago Farmers’ touring history, arrived in Oslo, Norway, on June 10th and began a busy week of gaining an appreciation of a nation filled with a variety of terrain and crops. Our first day after the overnight flight was spent on a tour of the city and arriving at our hotel, which had a ski jump on its spacious grounds.

    Oslo, the capital city, occupies an arc of land at the end of the “Oslo Fjord,” has 670,000 residents, and has access to visiting cruise ships from all over the world. The king has his own private farm located within the city limits.

    On day two, we embarked on a Monday morning tour that took us to the Viking Ship Museum and the Norwegian Folk Museum. The Museum provided a walking tour of typical historic dwellings and a stave-church. A special exhibit of Norwegian knitted mittens delighted my (Jim) granddaughter, Caryn Lantz.

    Our Oslo Hotel Viking Ship Caryn and Mitten Exhibit


    The group’s bus traveled along Mjosa Lake, the largest lake in Norway, to the Hoel  farm near the small town of Nes for lunch and a tour. Relics indicate the farm’s lakeside land has been cultivated since 300 AD.  After being operated by the church, it has been privately owned since 1679.  It now raises 200,000 chickens each year. Of interest is that 98 percent of the feed is locally produced and potatoes are processed for the protein component; no antibiotics are used.

    Our host gave us an overview of farming in Norway.  Only three percent of all land is deemed agricultural.  The largest grain crops are barley, rye, and oats.  These are used to supplement potatoes and hay for feeding livestock. Farmers also use mini-round bales (three feet by three feet) for the many small hay fields.  They weigh about 70-90 pounds and are “unfurled” for feeding.  Smaller utility tractors (20 horsepower or less) can be used for baling on the steep terrain and between rows of other plantings such as apple trees.  Plastic wraps prevent spoilage and eliminate need for storage barns.   In Norway, the number of larger farms has increased, just as it has in the US.  However, the average size of a farm in Norway is 124 acres of arable land.  Norway has a complex system of subsidized pricing of grain and poultry through the Ministry of Agriculture. Norway is not in the EU; it is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) since it was a founding member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).

    Host Explaining His Farming Operation Chicken Barn Barn Exterior


    The group arrived in Lillehammer, the site of the 1994 Winter Olympics, for the night.  We heard of the economic impact that the games provided to Norway as a country and the local area.  The village of 30,000 was packed during the ’94 event and likely resembled the impact on Lake Placid, New York, during the 1980 Olympics.  A number of the facilities have been repurposed for community and educational purposes.

    We started our third day with a visit to the ski jumping hills that can now be used year-round due to artificial snow surface. The next stop was the nearby Mailhaugen Farm Museum. Guides described farming practices of the 1800s and early 1900s, and our group toured buildings and saw equipment used for irrigation, threshing, grain storage and livestock.

    Olympic Ski Jumping Hill at Lillehammer Sod Roofed Barn at Mailhaugen Farm Museum  Mailhaugen Farm Museum 


    The bus then lumbered up a mountain road to the Brimi Soeter farm near Randen for lunch and fiddle music. The farm, located on a high mountain plateau, had livestock that included pigs, cattle, and turkeys.  The farmhouse’s basement also served as a cheese curing location.

    Mountain Farm Grazing Slope Cheese Storage


    The day ended with a short ride to the town of Lom and the Fossheim Hotel.  Besides the nearby Jotunheimen National Park, the small town is noted for one of the largest remaining stave churches. 

    Stave Church at Lom Skiers at the Top of the Mountain Pass Waterfall Seen on Flam Train Ride


    During our fourth day, bus driver Jon Janson demonstrated his skills on the morning drive from Lom to the highest mountain range in central Norway on a road that is normally closed from November to May due to snow.  A brief stop at the top of the mountain pass allowed the group to see the still snow-covered peaks with cross country skiers venturing out onto trails between lakes.

    The bus traveled on a historic western route towards the Hardanger fjord with one ferry crossing to arrive at Flam.  The afternoon was spent on the Flamsbanen train ride up to Myrdal and back again with a stop at its famous waterfall.  The group spent the night at the classic Brakanes Hotel located on the banks of the Hardanger fjord in Ulvik.

    On the fifth day, we traveled from Ulvik farther up the Hardanger fjord to a (salmon) fish farm.  Following a salmon lunch, the group heard about the fish farming industry, which is a more modern Norwegian export to supplement the historic “fish stock” (dried cod) product from the northwestern coast in the North Sea.  The Hardanger Akvasenter fish farm has two tanks, each with 5,000 fish.  They take 14-22 months to grow to a mature weight of 5.5 kg (12 pounds).  Norway has responded to potential criticism of aquaculture practice and since the 1990s regulates the amount of fish-space in pens as well as organic vegetable and non-antibiotic feed. 

    The afternoon was spent at the Hardanger Juice and Cider Factory.  The owner explained the processes of making must (freshly crushed apple including “pulp” with its cloudy appearance), various types of cider, and apple brandy.  The orchard uses four varieties of apples (Gravenstein, Summer Red, Aroma, and Discovery) and plants trees using the “espalier” technique for growing on wire trellises on the steep sides of the fjord.   We viewed his mechanized processing equipment and saw the cold room, distillery, and storage of aging barrels.

    View of Hardangerfjord from Ulvik Hotel Fish Tanks and Support Building Apple Orchards


    The bus traveled west on our sixth day past the major city of Voss, which was heavily involved during WWII, towards Norway’s second largest city of Bergen.  Near Bergen, the group stopped at the Dale woolen knitwear factory for a tour and shopping. It was established in the town of Dale in 1879 with access to both local Norwegian sheep and hydroelectric power.  They have been the producer of active wear for Norwegian winter Olympians.

    Cider Processor Aging Barrel Storage Antique Wool Scale


    After checking into the Thon Hotel in Bergen, the group had lunch (fish soup, reindeer “burgers” and waffles) at the Bryggeloffet & Stuene restaurant. Presentations were made to our guide, Nils, and our driver,  Jon. Having been both a travel agent and a farmer, Nils was perfectly qualified to help us understand his country. Jon has relatives in Wisconsin and wore his Green Bay Packers tie that he picked up on one of several visits to the US.

    Nils led a walking tour of the Bergen city center and harbor, including the fish market and historic fish stock export center.  The walking tour then wandered through residential areas and city center parks.  Of note was the beginning of the Edvard Grieg Festival with many musical events to celebrate their hometown composer’s 175th birthday.

    Our Guide Nils Statue of Edvard Grieg, Famous Norwegian Composer Bergen City Markets

     
    Following breakfast and some last-minute shopping on our seventh day, the group journeyed to the new Flesland Airport for departure.   Some of the travelers extended their trip with a week in Iceland prior to returning home, while others visited Denmark and Paris before returning to the US. We were all unanimous in our belief that we had a new appreciation of Norway.