Standing on two acres of cleared land off busy Howard Street, Linda Kruhmin envisions a line of hazelnut trees; beds of heirloom tomatoes, peppers and eggplants; an orchard of dwarf fruit trees; and maybe even a rice paddy.
That vision is the hard-won future of this land, where Kruhmin is the operations manager for The Talking Farm, an Evanston-based nonprofit. The group’s fledgling urban produce farm marks its first full year this June at 3701 Howard St. in Skokie, where a plot of pastoral activity is now taking shape among gas stations, auto body shops and rental storage facilities, just behind the Skokie Tot Learning Center.
From the time members of the nonprofit began discussing the idea of an urban farm as part of the Evanston Food Council, it took five years to find and that was big enough to sustain farming yet wasn’t damaged by industrial use. After negotiations for land owned by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District failed in 2010, the nonprofit began working with the Skokie Park District, which signed onto a land use agreement with the Talking Farm last summer.
Looking at the cleared land, almost ready for planting, Kruhmin is amazed by .
“It takes so many wonderful volunteers to do it,” she says.
Last summer and fall, volunteers spent hours clearing the invasive weed buckthorn, which had covered much of the site. This spring, athletes from shoveled a giant pile of wood chips off the land to make way for the growing season. That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to work that has been done on the land—and that has yet to be done.
“About seven restaurants have asked if we have stuff to sell,” says Kruhmin. Eventually, the Talking Farm plans to sell produce to restaurants and at farmers markets—but first, volunteers must build fencing to protect the crops from deer, install an irrigation system and grade the land, among other projects.
The farm’s first crops will be planted this summer in an Ethnic Heritage Garden, filled with plants traditionally grown by local cultural groups, including Assyrians, Ethiopians, Filipinos, Haitians, Indians and Trinidadians. In the fall, the group will host a harvest potluck to showcase the dishes that can be made from the plants they’ve grown.
Walking through the portion of the site to the east of the Tot Lot, Kruhmin points to show where The Talking Farm will add display beds demonstrating how to grow plants in buckets, on fences and in unusual places; where they’ll build a meeting place with benches; where the children’s gardens will be; and where volunteers plan to put an enabling garden that’s accessible to people in wheelchairs.
Behind the Tot Lot, Kruhmin counts off ten fields where she plans to grow 400 beds of vegetables. Dwarf fruit and nut trees will be planted in the back, and a swampy section could make way for a wild rice paddy.
“I grew up on a dairy farm. I left home at 17,” Kruhmin notes. “I have nine other brothers and sisters who live within five miles of the dairy farm, and I’m the only one farming.
As far as Kruhmin knows, The Talking Farm is the only urban farm for miles—the next closest ones are the City Farm in Chicago, Sand Hill Organics in Grayslake, and the Green Earth Institute in Naperville.
“We felt we needed one right in the center,” she says.
On a recent volunteer work day at the farm, kids aged 4 to 12 sprayed plastic planting trays clean with a hose while an adult volunteer went to work on the raised beds.
The kids came to the farm through a partnership with the Evanston Home Educators association, a group of parents who home-school their children. Giving kids the opportunity to see a project come to life from the ground up is part of the attraction, parents say.
“I just want them to get outside and see a project like this from the beginning,” said Lara Madill, an Evanston mother of three who brought her kids out to the volunteer work day.
“This is some work—meaningful work,” Madill explains. “They can come out here and see the process.
This educational partnership is an example of the impact The Talking Farm hopes to have on the community. In fact, that spirit is reflected in the name of the nonprofit. Kruhmin explains that the title “The Talking Farm” comes from the idea that the farm is devoted not just to growing and selling produce, but also to educating and changing the way people think.
“It’s the farm with something to say,” she says.
Ten-year-old Natalie Brame, who sorted pots for planting seedlings on the volunteer work day, explained the young organization’s impact succinctly.
“I like being outside in the fresh air and helping people out, being with my friends,” she says. “There’s kind of a sense of community.”
Volunteers and members of The Talking Farm will celebrate the site’s one-year anniversary on Saturday, June 16, with a volunteer work day. From 3 to 7 p.m. volunteers are invited to work on the demonstration garden and tour the farm.