BACK OF THE YARDS — The U-Pick farm is a familiar sight in a blueberry-rich vacation town like South Haven, Mich., but not so much in the industrial Back of the Yards neighborhood, or anywhere in the city for that matter.
So when Breanne Heath's Pie Patch Farm opens for picking — late June at the earliest — it'll have that distinction: Chicago's only pick-your-own organic fruit orchard.
Heath, 33, is managing the half-acre parcel at 5041 S. Laflin St. under a three-year agreement with the community-based nonprofit Su Casa Catholic Worker, which operates a family shelter and soup kitchen out of a former friary overlooking the garden.
Heath, a plant biologist and the garden and education manager for the Peterson Garden Project, knows this particular plot of land well.
She tended vegetable gardens on the site in her previous job with Growing Home, a nonprofit focused on farming and job training in the Englewood community.
"It feels a little like a sanctuary in the city," Heath said.
For eight years, Growing Home split the harvest with Su Casa. But after placing its interns at the Laflin farm in jobs, the organization left the site last year, "a happy circumstance for them, but not for us," said Su Casa's executive director, Cathy St. Clair.
Last fall, St. Clair called Heath, who had since moved on to the Peterson Garden Project. Heath had already been kicking around the idea of a pick-your-own urban orchard as a lower cost, hyperlocal model for both farmer and buyer.
"By growing things that don't require constant weeding and harvesting, costs can stay down. There's no transporting to market, no hiring people to pick, and there's this idea that if the food is being produced in this particular neighborhood, why take it to another neighborhood?" Heath said.
Janet Fuller says the project is starting out small:
Su Casa will provide volunteers to help Heath, and half of either the harvest or the farm proceeds will go back to Su Casa, St. Clair said.
Heath also will help plan and manage Su Casa's first vegetable garden on its side of the fence that surrounds the Pie Patch.
A church once sat on the land. It has been a garden since at least 1991. Heath said the soil is generous and healthy, much more so than that of the city-owned vacant lots that she had considered before reconnecting with St. Clair and Su Casa.
She started pruning and prepping garden beds in early March. Two weeks ago, she pruned the raspberry plants already growing on the property. Those should be ready to pick in late June or early July. Later summer and early fall will bring ground cherries, rhubarb, pumpkin, squash and sweet potatoes.
The two beds that cover the east half of the lot, totaling about 4,500 square feet, will be devoted to strawberries — six varieties. Heath will start planting those in April. This year's crop won't be for public consumption, though. Strawberries need time.
Heath also plans to experiment with grapes by grafting stems from new plants onto the rootstock of old grapevines covering an old trellis that, as far as she can tell, have never produced.
The farm's urban setting might prove more beneficial for the fruit than a rural one.
"What I've noticed in the past four years of growing is there's a lot less pests in the city than outside of the city, so it's a lot easier to be organic," Heath said.
And while the potential for a late frost is something all farmers must contend with, the city's residual warmth as a "heat island" might better protect the Pie Patch from the elements, she said.
Heath is still working out the U-Pick details. Because of the demands of her full-time job, Heath said she might open the orchard twice a week at most, on a first-come, first-pick basis. Customers would pay a flat fee for a container that they could fill to the brim with fruit; for squash, they'd likely pay by the pound.
The Pie Patch, Heath is certain, "definitely won't be a huge moneymaker at all."
But it will be unique and welcome in the neighborhood, St. Clair said.
"People really struggle to be able to make ends meet here and the ability for them to have access to fresh, organic produce at a reasonable cost is a rare opportunity," St. Clair said.
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