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Iron Street Urban Farm Teaches Farming Skills to Community

By Casey Cora | May 22, 2014 7:18am
Iron Street Urban Farm
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DNAinfo/Kyla Gardner

BRIDGEPORT — Brian Ellis is mighty proud of the steamy, smelly compost piled inside a 96-foot-long plastic-covered greenhouse.

Twice a week, Ellis collects bins of food scraps from places like Hoosier Mama Pie Company and Simone's Bar and hauls away spent beer mash from Revolution Brewing and Piece Pizzeria's brewery to help make a rich compost blend that serves as the soil for the Iron Street Urban Farm's growing operation. 

"No matter if it's hailing or a blizzard, it's gotta be picked up," said Ellis, manager of the farm's waist-high compost heap.

Casey Cora chats about the Iron Street Urban Farm's process of turning garbage into gold for local businesses:

 Brian Ellis, 23, oversees the compost operation at the Iron Street Urban Farm in Bridgeport.
Brian Ellis, 23, oversees the compost operation at the Iron Street Urban Farm in Bridgeport.
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DNAinfo/Kyla Gardner

At 23 years old, the West Sider is already an eight-year veteran of the Growing Power program, which oversees the farm at 3333 S. Iron St.

Growing Power is a Milwaukee-based nonprofit that has growing operations in Illinois and Wisconsin and satellite training sites across the South. Founded by former basketball player and urban farm pioneer Will Allen, the group teaches people young and old how to grow food, develop job skills and foster a sense of community.

Here in this converted trucking warehouse in Bridgeport, about a dozen full-time staffers are joined each season by at-risk teens from Growing Power's Youth Corp program. The group also hosts college students and numerous workshops and is always looking for volunteers.

Ellis came to the program after watching Growing Power workers throw a barbecue near their garden at Cabrini-Green Homes, the troubled former housing project on the city's Near North Side. Allen, Growing Power's charismatic leader, was at the party and chatted Ellis up.

"It was just amazing to me," he said.

Ellis said he and his pals used to screw around and pick tomatoes from the Cabrini-Green garden and whip them at the buildings. Now he'd never think of it.

"Now I can build aquaponic systems. I know how to plant correctly, how to harvest correctly, how to make compost and finish it," he said.

At the Iron Street farm, workers have planted a variety of crops that'll be sent to a handful of first-rate local restaurants — The Publican, Perennial Virant and the Signature Room high atop the John Hancock Building, for starters — and some of the food is sent to various Chicago farmers markets and to a handful of Walgreens drug stores.

The group also tends to five other gardens throughout the city, some of which grow the ingredients needed for products like lip balms, teas and salsas.

The building is also a waypoint for Growing Power's market basket program, which functions like a community supported agriculture subscription in which food is brought from Growing Power's massive Milwaukee farms to Bridgeport, then gets sent to a few pickup sites throughout Chicago and the suburbs.

Workers at the Bridgeport organic farm, located near the banks of the fabled Bubbly Creek stretch of the Chicago River's South Branch, are growing vast amounts of lettuces and kales, mustard greens, bok choy, sunflower and bean sprouts, and several varieties of tomatoes.

Three goats — Billy Ray, Spiro and Little Debbie — keep watch near the building's rear loading docks. Soon, they'll be joined by more goats and will make goat's milk and cheese.

Inside, the apprentices and Growing Power staffers grow a variety of gourmet mushrooms and tend to a few aquaponic farms, a closed-loop system in which waste produced by yellow perch helps feed the herb plants grown above the fish tank.

Ellis is particularly enamored with the nearby vermicompost system, made up of dozens of raised beds filled with brewery mash and thousands of hungry red wriggler worms that leave castings — that's worm poop — which help nourish the soil.

The method results in a nutrient-rich composting soil that's also used at the urban farm's growing operations.

It's also a subject of wonder for the teenage first-timers who visit the facility.

"It's not nasty poop," Ellis tells them. "It's really helpful for the plants."

The Iron Street Urban Farm at 3333 S. Iron St. in Bridgeport is the site of a weekly Farmers' Market from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. every Saturday. For more information on Growing Power's Chicago programs, see the group's official website.