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Agricultural trailblazer: Growing Home is a model for cultivating crops, community and business

LaQuandra Fair said when she first learned about Growing Home, she was “not into the whole farming thing.”

However, in 2016, Fair said she came across a resource table at her daughter’s day care center and was invited to apply for Growing Home’s employment training program.

“When I got accepted, I didn’t even know how transformative it really would be,” Fair said. “You learn everything from seeding the plants all the way to harvesting; you take care of the plants daily; you package everything and go to markets and sell.”

Growing Home, Chicago’s first and only USDA-certified organic high production urban farm, has a business model that is almost entirely fueled by giving back. Through training others and investing in its community in Englewood, Growing Home is able to sustain itself while stimulating the local economy.

Marketing and communications coordinator Megan Morrison said because Growing Home is a nonprofit organization, a main part of its focus is ensuring those in food-insecure areas can find fresh, affordable produce.

“Our vision and our idea is that everyone deserves access to a good job and good food,” she said.

In 1988, Growing Home first acquired a plot of land in Marseilles, Ill., through the McKinney-Vento Act, which allows nonprofits to use federal surplus land for disadvantaged populations. The organization began farming and training urban growers in 2002, and in 2005, it moved to its current location in Englewood.

Morrison said the organization now has over an acre of land in total and is composed of seven hoop houses, an outdoor growing space, a processing room, a classroom, a trailer, a bee apiary and a seedling nursery.

She said Growing Home uses these spaces to grow more than 30,000 pounds of produce each year, including 150 varieties of vegetables, herbs and fruit.

The organization is deeply connected to the neighborhood’s needs, distributing community-supported agriculture packages, selling to local restaurants, hosting pop-up markets for events in Englewood, and setting up stands at farmers’ markets where they almost always sell out, Morrison said.

At on-site farmers’ markets, she said they are able to sell produce at half price due to nonprofit grants and donations from supporters of Growing Home.

Of Growing Home’s $1.7 million expenses in 2018, 74% came from costs to run its employment training program, another part of what makes the organization stand out.

The 14-week paid transitional job training program helps more than 50 adults ages 18 to 60 every year find work, and many end up working for Growing Home or in other local agriculture-related positions. It focuses on those who may have barriers to employment and are often formerly incarcerated or have a lapse in work history.

“The participants are called production assistants because they are paid and helping us out on the farm while learning quality control, how to work together as a team, leadership skills, communication skills and trade skills,” Morrison said.

Each day, production assistants are expected to contribute to Growing Home by helping staff with planting, harvesting and other farm duties, while also taking courses for job readiness, so they are also able to positively contribute to other businesses.

Fair, Growing Home’s community engagement coordinator and a 2016 graduate of the employment training program, said in her position, she is responsible for building relationships with Englewood residents, community groups and other organizations for a larger circle of support and impact.

“One of the ways that we connect with other folks typically is through the food,” Fair said.

Even with the COVID-19 pandemic, Fair said Growing Home has continued handing out community giveaways of produce, branded water bottles and bags, as well as hand sanitizer and cleaning solution.

During the first few months of lockdown, Growing Home donated 100% of its produce, and Fair said since the beginning of its first harvest, the organization has averaged 60 deliveries a week.

Fair has also helped launch 12 episodes for the organization’s first green home cooking show and created cooking demonstrations to put on Growing Home’s YouTube page, some of which have received thousands of views.

Morrison said with support from Growing Home’s board and donors throughout the pandemic, the organization was able to donate laptops and hotspots with unlimited data to its staff to allow for virtual graduations, virtual job fairs and workshops.

She said Growing Home is currently discussing heating its hoop houses using solar panel energy to extend its growing season and finding ways to ensure community members know about the farm and what it is offering through fundraising, social media, video tours and newsletters.

This year, Fair said Growing Home has plans to expand its business and community reach. First, it plans to launch a community garden space free to families and different groups, as well as a food truck with a sliding pay scale to service those hit the hardest by financial or housing instability. The organization also hopes to have more cohorts of production assistants and sell more food, she said.

“Just to see a place like this thriving in a community that’s so disinvested in, to see how we are a real resource for the community—that makes it fulfilling,” Fair said.

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