Can urban farms become sustainable businesses Chicagoans can depend on?

By opting to become a for-profit business and trying out creative ways to become self-sustaining, Herban Produce took a big step — and a risky one.

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Alicia Nesbary-Moore checks on the growth of some ground cherries at Herban Produce.

Alicia Nesbary-Moore checks on the growth of some ground cherries at Herban Produce.

Mariah Rush/Sun-Times

More people should support businesses on the South and West sides, not just out of pure goodwill but because those establishments have earned it with high-quality services that can compete with any business in Chicago.

That’s what the co-owners of Herban Produce — a two-acre urban farm in East Garfield Park that started as a nonprofit and became a for-profit business in 2018 — believe. And we couldn’t agree more.

Urban farms are an important tool to help fight food insecurity in communities that are food deserts or otherwise have limited healthy and fresh food options. Winning that battle is unrealistic, though, if urban farms are viewed as an afterthought, or a charity that’s only worthy of peoples’ spare pennies.

Businesses such as Herban Produce are doing their part, trying to become dependable, hyperlocal and economy-boosting food options for residents who most need better choices. Chicagoans can do their part by supporting these operations, so they become a permanent resource and a vital part of the fabric of the neighborhood and the city.

Editorial

Editorial

Efforts to stay and grow

Alicia Nesbary-Moore and Barry Howard, co-owners of Herban Produce, say they partner with about seven Chicago restaurants to supply them with fresh ingredients. And instead of solely depending on growing fruits and vegetables, the farm finds other creative avenues to keep their business sustainable and profitable.

One initiative includes their Market Box, a service that provides subscribers with samples of produce and pantry items weekly. They also grow flowers, which are sold to florists in the area.

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Herban also offers tours and rents out space for events. There’s also an upstairs space that operates as an Airbnb.

To strengthen community engagement, Herban Produce plans to host a fall festival, with a pumpkin patch where families can pick their own pumpkins and enjoy some cider.

“We wanted to change the narrative away from this just kind of feel-bad-for-you poverty world to ‘Hey, let’s empower, let’s show us trying to create a real business here,’” Howard told the Sun-Times.

More Chicagoans turning to urban farms

In July, Sun-Times reporter Mariah Rush wrote about Urban Growers Collective’s Fresh Moves — an affordable market-on-wheels that runs five days a week and makes several stops at locations throughout the South and West sides. The mobile farmer’s market gets fresh produce from eight local urban farms, and sells food at an affordable price that attracts people struggling to make ends meet. An avocado, for example, costs 50 cents, compared to $3 in some stores.

Timuel Jones-Bey said the rise in grocery prices and the lack of access to affordable food has sent demand soaring to about 3,000 customers a week.

“This summer is different,” Jones-Bey said. “We’ve seen such a response because the price of food is so high. Also, our fears of food security are actually becoming a reality.”

In this year alone, three major grocers have closed in South and West side neighborhoods: two Aldi’s in Gresham and a Whole Foods in Englewood — where, not surprisingly, demand for Fresh Moves is high.

Thousands of Chicagoans live in food deserts, or, nearly as bad, have access to fast-food restaurants but no grocery stores with nutritious options.

Meanwhile, according to the Chicago Urban Agriculture Mapping Project, there are about 890 urban farms in Chicago.

The work they do, especially in communities with limited food choices, is commendable.

But for these institutions to thrive, and ultimately play a role in fixing problems such as food insecurity and lack of gainful employment in some neighborhoods, they must have support.

By opting to become a for-profit business and trying out creative ways to become self-sustaining, Herban Produce took a big step — and a risky one.

If they can make a go of it, that could point the way forward for keeping hundreds of other urban farms afloat too.

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