Uncommon Ground, an urban rooftop farm in Chicago, grows diverse, heirloom varieties to serve up in its restaurant. Find out how more about this Chicago restaurant is joining the locally grown movement.
From small-scale urban farming, including rooftop gardens, to buying locally grown ingredients from Heartland farms, Chicago restaurants are experiencing a growing commitment to sustainable practices in farming. Locally Grown (Agate Midway Publishing, 2012) by Anna Blessing, takes a look into these modern heartland farms and urban gardens, exploring how sustainable practices in farming—and close ties to high-profile chefs and restaurateurs—have propelled the "locally grown" culinary movement. Blessing tells rich stories of heartland farms through beautiful photography, fascinating anecdotes from farmers and chefs, and up-close looks at what makes each farm so unique. This excerpt is taken from Chapter 20, “Uncommon Ground Rooftop Farm.”
You can purchase this book from the Mother Earth Living store: Locally Grown
When you’re standing in the middle of Uncommon Ground’s rooftop farm, sounds of screeching brakes and sirens substitute for crickets and birds. Tall buildings replace a backdrop of trees. But just like other organic farms throughout the Midwest, it’s a working farm that grows produce for chefs; in this case, the chef right downstairs at Uncommon Ground restaurant.
Uncommon Ground was the country’s first certified organic rooftop farm in 2008, when owners Michael and Helen Cameron opened their second restaurant in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. The 2,500-square-foot expanse is taken up with planter boxes filled with what chef Chris Spear and farmer Dave Snyder have planned together.
Dave has been Uncommon Ground’s rooftop farmer for two seasons. When he first moved to Chicago from Seattle eight years ago, there was a community garden across the street from his apartment called the Ginkgo Organic Garden.
“Usually with a community garden, you have your plot and I have mine, but everything at Ginkgo is gardened cooperatively,” Dave says, “and then the entire harvest gets donated to this food bank for low income folks with AIDS. It’s a really nice match because we’re providing high quality organic produce for a population that has to look after its general health very carefully.”
Dave learned how to plant, grow, and harvest from volunteering at the community garden. Since he started at Uncommon Ground, he has been growing lettuces, herbs, tomatoes, spinach, peas, kale, mustard greens, sorrel, radishes, ground cherries, and more. Urban farming challenges include space, of course, and the nutrients in the soil. Dave says he tries to limit the crops that take a long time to grow so that planters aren’t taken up with vegetables for a big chunk of the season. Instead he likes to plant lettuces and greens he can harvest multiple times throughout the season, along with other high-turnover crops. Dave composts “religiously” so he can enrich the soil in the container boxes, a necessity because nutrients are depleted quickly.
Dave got connected with the Camerons through the Chicago Rarities Orchard Project. When he heard that the farmer of Uncommon Ground was leaving, he got in touch with them to start farming the rooftop.
The Chicago Rarities Orchard Project is aimed at starting community orchards in the city, in particular rare and endangered varieties of fruit. Dave is one of a handful of people heading up the project. “One hundred years ago, there were 15,000 different kinds of apples just in America—forget about Asia where apples come from—and in the last 100 years we have lost 85 to 90 percent of those,” Dave says. “When you lose a variety, you lose the flavor, the texture, the aroma, how you use it, it’s resistance to disease and pests, the ability for it to grow in different climates; when you lose a variety, you lose its genetic abilities.”
They plan to plant the first orchard in Logan Square in the summer of 2012, starting with between 20 to 40 varieties, including apple, cherry, plum, and peach trees, as well as paw paws, medlars, and persimmons.
Dave says there is a pressing need to preserve varieties that are still in existence. Whether planting fruit trees, growing on the rooftop, or cultivating and growing in many acres of farmland, diversity is important, and actually crucial to food safety, according to Dave.
“The idea is that diversity builds robustness,” Dave says. “It doesn’t matter if you are talking about financial investments or food systems: the more diversity you have, the stronger the system.”
There are 200,000 different kinds of wheat, Dave says, pointing out that he can’t even name two types. “Most industrialized agriculture is monoculture, or very close to monoculture, and the weakness of monocultures has been proven time and time again,” he says. The most dramatic example is the Irish potato famine.
“It’s something that mathematicians study as much as ecologists study. If you grow only one kind of your crop, then it had all the strengths of that variety, but it also has all of the weaknesses too,” he says.
“They were only growing a single species of potatoes that was easy to propagate, but that meant that the genetic variation of all of those potatoes was essentially nothing and so when potato blight made it to Ireland, the crops were decimated,” Dave explains. “Of course, potato blight came to the United States too, but it didn’t decimate America’s potato crop because we had far more potato varieties at that time.”
On the rooftop, Dave grows as many varieties of vegetables he can, including unusual heirloom varieties that might not be found at many other farms. Because the crop planning is collaborative between chef and farmer, chef Chris Spear can hand-pick nearly anything that Dave says will grow well in their conditions. Before ordering seeds, well before planting anything, Dave sits down with Chris to plan for the growing season ahead.
“It’s totally collaborative and it has to be, because it doesn’t do me any good to grow something that he doesn’t need,” Dave says. “He thinks about things from an ingredient point of view; I know what is efficient to grow.”
When chefs work through a large distributor, there may be three types of tomatoes they sell, a slicing, a paste, and a cherry tomato. When chefs go to farmers’ markets, the farmers are selling dozens of varieties of tomatoes. “If you’re a small grower, you could grow a thousand different kinds of tomatoes,” Dave says, “And in our situation, Chris has access to all of those different varieties, provided that we plan ahead.”
Like the Purple Calabash.
“The Purple Calabash is actually a wonderful tomato, but you can see just by looking at it, it’s super duper delicate, it breaks really easily and most farmers would never bother with it,” Dave says.
Even though the tomato has wonderful flavor, it’s a terrible crop to grow and transport, and for local farms growing enormous varieties of tomatoes, this specific one probably wouldn’t be worth the trouble. Because Uncommon Ground’s scale is so much smaller, and primarily because they don’t have transportation in their system, they can grow something like the Purple Calabash and get it to the chef and onto the menu.
“We feed on average 100 people a day. If you imagine a sustenance farm of a half acre to an acre for one family, and you have a family of 100 people, you can imagine our farm would have to be pretty large,” Dave says. “This is actually one one-hundredth of one acre. It’s a very small proportion of the food the chef uses, but we can grow certain very special things that are difficult to source elsewhere, which is pretty neat.”
Advice from Dave Snyder
In terms of urban agriculture, nothing has inspired me more than Ginkgo Organic Gardens, where I volunteer. It is a cooperatively farmed community garden that donates its harvest to a food bank. It is Ginkgo that originally interested me in growing and Ginkgo that continues to remind me why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Other sources of inspiration are City Farm and Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse. It’s the people and the projects that get me most excited.
Reprinted with permission from Locally Grown: Portraits of Artisanal Farms from America’s Heartland by Anna Blessing and published by Agate Midway Publishing, 2012.