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Moah's Ark Urban Farm Sprouts Life in Empty Lot

 Mo Cahill's farm, squished between two-flats, produces chicken eggs, herbs and more.
Moah's Ark
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ROGERS PARK — After Mo Cahill converted her old Chevy truck into a chicken coop behind her single-family home on Touhy Avenue, she purchased an empty lot one building over and started an urban farm called Moah's Ark.

"[The lot] has been sitting here empty for a long time, so I think everyone had their little fantasy of what they could do with it," said Cahill, wearing overalls in front of a temporary greenhouse filled with basil and tomato seedlings.

The rest of her farm, at 1839 W. Touhy Ave., nestled between two-flat apartment buildings, has been a work in progress since Cahill and her husband purchased the property two years ago for $125,000.

Near the street, Cahill layered twigs, logs and other plant debris — dropped off by neighborhood landscapers — to create a long-lasting fertilizer base.

She said it'll be 15 years before the debris completely breaks down, but in the meantime, she hopes to plant apple trees and other permanent crops to create a small orchard. By the alleyway, she has plans to build a 20-by-40-foot barn.

Cahill describes the farm as her "brick-and-mortar retirement plan."

"I'm going to sit on my rocking chair under the eaves of my barn and talk to my chickens," the 58-year-old said. "I'm really into this for the solitude."

Her 10 chickens live behind her house and split their time between bobbing around the backyard and laying eggs in the Chevy truck.

The former art student, who sports a few dreadlocks in her short, white hair, raised five kids in Rogers Park. Cahill said she grew up in Aurora, where as a child she gardened with her dad.

Now she spends every day working on her farm — although she's quick to point out that she doesn't fit a crop-tending stereotype.

"I'm not one of those 4-o'clock-in-the-morning farmers," she said. "I sleep too much."

Her neighbor's reactions toward the urban farm have been mixed, she said.

"It runs from they think I've completely lost my mind this time to this is the coolest thing [they've] ever heard of," she said.

Elizabeth Recinto, 34, has lived next door to the lot for 11 years with her husband and four children.

"Mo has been so gracious," she said. "She's done quite a bit to revitalize the land."

Recinto said the lot had been unkempt before Cahill took over, and she's happy that her kids can see something not usually done in an urban environment.

"Living in a big city like Chicago, they go to school and tell their friends — and they don't believe it," she said. "We love it."