By Julie Gerke
A group of dedicated urban farmers is taking vacant Jacksonville land and turning it into a place to grow food as well as ideas.
The Mainstreet Farm Initiative of the Jacksonville Park Foundation is using its first site, at 641 S. Church St., as a demonstration of what can happen when you build healthy soil at otherwise unused or underused ground.
“We want this to be a farm and not a community garden,” said Michael Woods, vice president of the park foundation and head of the natural resources division of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, during a public tour on Sept. 7. Curious gardeners, neighbors and others attended the three-hour open house, wandering through plots of vegetables and flowers, and seeing first-hand how bees can pollinate and chickens can prepare and fertilize ground.
“We want to create … an opportunity for the community to come together,” Woods said, calling the site a “demonstration farm for urban agriculture.”
The site includes vacant lots that stretch between South Church to West Chambers streets, and beyond to South Fayette to South Diamond streets. The majority of the lots touch or are within sight distance of the town brook and are within a designated floodplain; City Development Director Brian Nyberg said that means no other permanent structure can be built once an existing house or business is torn down.
Anyone driving along the farm’s perimeter can see plants at work: corn, staked tomato and pepper plants, hundreds of zinnia, and trellises full of bright orange and yellow gourds. Small wooden structures are homes to a heritage breed of chickens that loosen the soil as they scratch poop and plant stalks into the ground. Under a tree that’s shade is populated with native prairie plants, a hive is ground zero for bees that pollinate the plants.
Four-foot sections of smaller plants are easily weeded and cultivated; late-season plants like cabbage and Swiss chard are at the feet of the cornstalks. A keyhole garden — a space within a circle of corn and other plants — is a space for its own compost bin. Eventually, runners from the bin will leach toward the perimeter plants.
The unplumbed site includes potatoes, broccoli, Swiss chard, cabbage, zucchini, winter squash, acorn squash, cucumbers, kale and Brussels sprouts, in addition to two types of corn, tomatoes, peppers and gourds.
“Everything here is growing pretty good without water,” Woods said.
The project has been awarded six members from AmeriCorps Vista, an organization that — like the Peace Corps — provides knowledgeable help for various infrastructure and educational projects. The six will help with building out the demo site, marketing the ideas and produce, and building new farms.
Produce will be taken to a food hub at the Midwest Agriculture and Arts Complex on the former MacMurray College campus.
Part of the site will include a winding path, largely along the brook’s upper bank, offering a place to walk, watch wildlife (groundhogs are frequent visitors), and look at a mix of annual and perennial prairie plants. Fruit trees are on the horizon, along with raspberries and strawberries.
Cameron Ruyle, a research conservationist with the Morgan County Soil and Water Conservation District, is looking forward to 12 workshops planned in conjunction with the program.
Urban agriculture is “opening our eyes to the problems in our world,” he said. “Between 2015 and 2023, we’ve really made great strides.”
The venture pulls partial funding and help from a variety of sources: the park foundation, Jacksonville Children’s Foundation, Jacksonville Youth Engagement Program, Morgan and Scott County soil and water conservation districts, the National Association of Conservation Districts, City of Jacksonville and Morgan County.
The most recent grant, for $60,000, came from the National Association of Conservation Districts Urban and Community Conservation program.
Nyberg said community support for the venture has grown as the work has progressed. “It’s a productive use of non-productive land,” he said.