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Chicago at Forefront of New Relations With Cuba at Urban Agriculture Event

By Patty Wetli | April 16, 2015 8:48am
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IRVING PARK — A handshake between President Barack Obama and Cuba's Raul Castro made headlines around the world, but in some ways the politicians were simply following the lead of their respective countries' urban agriculture experts.

Saturday's Spring Gathering of Advocates for Urban Agriculture, open to the public at Kilbourn Park, will bring together community garden and urban farming activists from Chicago and Havana for a cross-cultural swap of ideas.

The centerpiece of the event, from 12:30-3:30 p.m., will be a screening of the documentary "Tierralismo: Stories From a Cooperative Farm," which tells the story of Cuba's most successful and important urban farm, Organopónico Vivero Alamar.

The film's director, Alejandro Ramirez, and Organopónico's co-founder Isis Salcines will join the leaders of local urban gardening and farming organizations for a panel discussion, sharing successes, challenges and future plans.

Seeds for the event were planted back in 2013 when Harry Rhodes, executive director of Englewood's Growing Home, visited Cuba as part of a group studying sustainability practices.

It was there that Rhodes met Ramirez, who handed him a copy of the just completed "Tierralismo."

In talking with Ramirez and others, Rhodes learned that Cuba's food system fell apart after the collapse of the Soviet Union, having relied heavily on resources from the USSR, like fuel for tractors, to function.

"Some people started growing food so they wouldn't starve," said Rhodes, who will moderate Saturday's round-table.

Instead of clamping down on these enterprising individuals, the government gave people land to farm — taking 20 percent of their earnings — and the movement mushroomed.

"Today, in Havana, half the food is grown in the city," Rhodes said.

Rhodes returned to the U.S. impressed with what he saw: farms using all-organic practices (pesticides are illegal in Havana), a strong cooperative structure and people working together across generations.

"People are definitely able to make a living" at farming, Rhodes said.

In a country where food costs more than housing, urban farmers can be better off than doctors, he said.

For Rhodes and Growing Home, which provides farm-based job training, the lessons learned in Cuba have significant implications for what could be accomplished in Chicago.

"Are for-profit [urban] farms feasible? I think that remains to be seen," he said. "But the co-op model is interesting to look at. Ten half-acre farmers joining together could be a way to make a living."

Growing Home's single acre in Englewood produced 30,000 pounds of food in 2014, the tip of an iceberg that Rhodes believes could transform the community.

To that end, he's been working with the city toward the development of 59th Street agricultural corridor on 14 acres of vacant land.

"That leads to food access, jobs and food enterprises" like restaurants and cafes, Rhodes said.

"It could be thousands of jobs," he said. "That's the number one thing that needs to happen in Englewood, so people have something to do and a way to make a living."

In addition to the "Tierralismo" screening and panel discussion, the Spring Gathering will include a tour of the Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse, a potluck lunch (bring a dish to share) and a community slideshow.

Participating local organizations include Enlace (Little Village), Garfield Park Garden Network, KAM Isaiah Israel (Hyde Park), North Lawndale Greening Committee and Peterson Garden Project (North Side).

Kilbourn Park is located at 3501 N. Kilbourn Ave.

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