Deshawn Willingham, owner and operator of Chicago Urban Farm Solutions, stands inside a hoop house at Chicago Urban Farm Solutions in Lynwood, Tuesday, June 18, 2024.

Deshawn Willingham, owner and operator of Chicago Urban Farm Solutions, stands inside a hoop house at Chicago Urban Farm Solutions in south suburban Lynwood. Willingham graduated from Windy City Harvest’s Corps program before starting his own farm, which supplies vegetables and fruits to various neighborhood organizations.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Windy City Harvest plants seeds for future careers of urban farmers, healthier communities

Since 2009, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban agriculture and jobs training initiative has a 91% job placement rate six months after graduation through its apprenticeship program.

While serving probation for a misdemeanor in 2019, Deshawn Willingham saw a flyer at his probation officer’s office for an urban farming apprenticeship program.

That flyer set a course for a new career for the South Shore resident. Today, Willingham grows a variety of organic vegetables from collard greens to Swiss chard on 22 acres near south suburban Lynwood.

“I fell in love with the idea of farming right away,” said Willingham, 50, “and never had a problem with the work,” referring to the labor-intensive nature of farming. “You’re out in nature and it’s therapeutic.”

Windy City Harvest is the Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban agriculture and jobs training initiative, which has helped cultivate the careers of hundreds of aspiring urban farmers such as Willingham as well as nourish communities that lack access to healthy food.

Headquartered at the Farm on Ogden in North Lawndale, Windy City Harvest has graduated 264 graduates with a 91% job placement rate six months after graduation since 2009 through its apprenticeship program. Some 50 students participate in the organization’s Youth Farm annually. Its Farmer Incubator program has led to the creation of a dozen, independently owned businesses — 80% of them majority owned by people of color or indigenous operators.

In partnership with Lawndale Christian Health Center, Windy City Harvest also creates nutrition oases in food deserts where residents lack access to fresh and healthy food due to barriers such as a lack of transportation or grocery stores. It also has distributed more than 44,000 boxes of produce since 2016 as part of its mission to provide healthy food to communities by growing food at the Farm on Ogden.

Inside the farm, a stunning array of plants are seeded or ready for harvest. Fertilized by tanks of tilapia, the aquaponics system not only recycles water and nutrients, it grows fish for sale. Plump orange koi swim in the aquaponics tanks. The bountiful variety of produce includes lettuce, rosemary, thyme, cherry tomatoes and spinach. There’s also a community farm store, greenhouses and an outdoor growing area where visitors can learn about health, nutrition and sustainable agriculture.

As a registered nurse, Carmen Vergara, who grew up in Little Village just south of the Farm on Ogden, sees the immediate need for community nutrition.

“We believe that good food is good medicine,” said Vergara, who is also vice president for community partnerships with the Botanic Garden. “And there’s a huge demand for healthy, affordable food in this area.”

The Farm on Ogden is partnering with local residents to grow more food, jobs and health in an “accessible and sustainable way,” Vergera said.

The farm is having a positive and lasting impact on the neighborhood, said Dr. Wayne Detmer, chief clinical officer at Lawndale Christian Health.

“Life expectancy for a person living in North Lawndale is 13 years less than people living in other communities in Chicago. It doesn’t have to be this way, but the system, especially the medical establishment, isn’t designed to address the issues that many of our communities face. Community partnerships — like the Farm on Ogden — attempt to provide resources and opportunities as a catalyst for lasting change,” Detmer said.

Part of that lasting change is helping shape the futures of its graduates.

“Many of the graduates of the Corps training program have achieved sustainable employment in urban agriculture and other sectors. Students in the summer program have successfully completed college, and some have returned to work in urban agriculture,” Detmer said.

An employee shows purple star carrots and beets to a photographer at Farm on Ogden in North Lawndale Thursday. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

An employee holds a bunch of purple star carrots and beets at Farm on Ogden in North Lawndale Thursday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Willingham is building his farm within driving distance of his South Shore home and will eventually add eight farm workers. And he’s still growing — along with his farm manager and fellow Windy City Harvest alum Natasha Coleman, he’s eyeing more farmland along U.S. Route 30 to add to his current farming footprint, minutes from the Indiana border. The land for the farm was purchased by The Conservation Fund (TCF) for about $840,000 and leased to Willingham, who pays nearly $2,300 a month, with lease payments going into equity in a future purchase. He’ll be able to buy the land by November 2025.

Not only is Willingham turning a profit, he’s donated some 400 boxes of fresh, organic produce to the Greater Chicago Food Depository and St. Sabina’s Church. Last season, the farm donated or sold at a discount about 30% of everything they grew and donated money to Esperanza Health Centers.

“I have always wanted to give back. To be able to give back, doing something I love, is incredibly gratifying and humbling,” Willingham said.

John F. Wasik is a Sun-Times “New Voices” contributor. A Chicago-area journalist and author, he’s written 19 books and writes the “Refinement” newsletter.