EDITORIAL: Find a way to save south suburban community farm

We get that everyone has to follow the letter of the law, but it seems like there ought to be a way to work this one out.

SHARE EDITORIAL: Find a way to save south suburban community farm
A quirk in the law has shut down the community farm along the Cal-Sag Channel in Blue Island.

A complication in the law has shut down a community farm along the Cal-Sag Channel in Blue Island.

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When a good law leads to a dumb result, somebody should do a little legal pruning.

Consider the story of a popular community farm in Blue Island that has been uprooted, though nobody thought this was a good idea.

For five years, local residents could buy fresh organically grown vegetables on a 3.5-acre farm along Canal Street near Hoyne Avenue in the south suburb. Local restaurants and micro-brewers bought some of the produce, and some of it went to a local food pantry.

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Blue Island was pleased to see a stretch of vacant land along the Cal-Sag Channel being put to good use. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which owns the land and leased it to Blue Island, got an environmental boost from rows of vegetables, which do a better job of soaking up rainwater than mowed grass or a parking lot.

But Illinois law says the MWRD can lease land to municipalities only for recreational uses. If the MWRD leases land to a profit-making operation, the operation must pay the going rate. The laudable intent of the law is to keep deep-pocketed leaseholders from making money off county residents, which was a problem in the past.

But those rules tripped up the Blue Island Organic Sustainable Farm, which was paying the city of Blue Island just $1 a year. The farm was technically a profit-making entity even though it relied partly on volunteer help and its “profits” were mostly plowed back into keeping the vegetables coming.

At an MWRD hearing on June 20, local residents spoke in defense of the farm, saying it was their best source for inexpensive organic produce. And the MWRD’s commissioners didn’t necessarily disagree.

“People should be able to have ready access to organic, affordable foods without going to a high-end supermarket in a different part of the county,” Commissioner Cameron “Cam” Davis said.

But the MWRD, which hadn’t known about Blue Island’s sublease to the farm, decided it could not allow the farm to continue operating under current state law.

MWRD President Kari K. Steele said one solution would be for Blue Island to find another site for the farm. Another solution would be to convert it to a conventional community garden where people grow their own crops, but don’t sell anything, although that would mean no one could buy organic produce anymore. A third, longer-range, solution suggested by Commissioner Debra Shore would be to take “a renewed look at our land use policy and leasing statute to see if we can make better policy for the 21st century.”

Fresh cabbages, cucumbers and tomatoes were being grown in a quasi-community garden where nobody was getting rich. This was hardly some avaricious misuse of public land.

We’re all for respecting the letter of the law. But there oughta be a way to work this one out.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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