ROCKFORD, Ill. (AP) — Kenyatte Moore, 28, a self-professed carnivore, liked veggies after learning how to grow them.
"After working here and using some of the harvest to eat," he said during a break last week at the 12,000-square-foot farm at Rockford Housing Authority's Blackhawk Courts, "I thought eating this is very nice."
Moore, a Blackhawk resident who was laid off from a temporary factory job, and 20 others will earn paychecks this summer as they till, seed, plant, treat, harvest, market and sell produce from the housing development's urban farm. They'll work with kids from the neighborhood, teaching them how to grow healthy food and why its important to eat it.
Moore thought gardening was just throwing seeds into the ground and waiting for them to grow, until he started working the land. Last week he and Spencer Ellsworth of Angelic Organics talked about protecting plants with neem oil, a natural pesticide, and about how incorporating fish emulsion into the ground would promote the growth of fungi that provide nutrients to the plant.
"That's the word, symbiosis," said Moore.
"It's definitely a science experiment around here," said Ellsworth.
The Blackhawk Courts Farm and Garden is in its third year. It's a resident-driven project, where they plan what they want to grow on a half-acre of land that produces more than food. Participants also learn business skills, leadership, how to make healthy meals for their families and how to create community in a housing development where cohesion can be difficult to build.
"The reason we choose Blackhawk is that it's one of our most disconnected developments where people barely talk to each other," said Ron Clewer, RHA's CEO.
RHA, Angelic Organics Learning Center and Zion Outreach are partners in the urban farm. The RHA has a contract with Angelic worth about $130,000, Clewer said, which includes capital investments in fences, trailers and extending water service to the garden for an irrigation system. Clewer said that if you take out the those investments, the budget is similar to other self-sufficiency programs his agency supports.
Last year their program helped residents grow two tons of vegetables, most of which were sold at a 32 market stands and through 15 shares in a Community Supported Agriculture program where investors received weekly bags of fresh organic produce. Revenues, according to an RHA report, were $2,333. Blackhawk Courts residents, who were also allowed to pick produce for free from a 2,200-square-foot community garden, were among the biggest farm stand buyers.
"There were statements made quite awhile ago that folks in public housing don't want healthy food choices," said Clewer. "Our residents want healthy food. They're using it. They're eating it. They're learning how to cook it."
RHA said 120 youths participated last summer in the garden programs, which included work in the fields and lessons on preparing vegetables for meals or how to preserve them for later use. The garden provided 12 jobs last year for farm apprentices and youth leaders. This year 21 people will earn money from the garden.
"I didn't want them to sell drugs so I got them selling carrots and onions," said Ruth Fairchild, of Zion Outreach, who started the program in several raised beds outside of Zion Buddy House.
"I was a 10-year-old living in Henry Horner Homes," said Fairchild, who grew up in Chicago. "I didn't want to live there. It's been my lifelong dream to get people jobs so they can move away from public housing."
Fairchild said that five years ago she got $5,000 in seed money for a Buddy House program. She hired three people at Buddy House during the summer and they worked the garden beds. Interest grew and the garden became a farm that residents plan.
"That's why this is successful," Fairchild said. "They plan it. This is the food they want to eat."
Des Moore, 22, was working the soil with his brother last week. He's in charge of setting up the farm stand and making sure people who bought shares in the CSA get their weekly bags of carrots and onions, and a whole lot more this summer.
Last summer Moore went to a Los Angeles conference hosted by Rooted in Community, which promotes healthy communities and food justice through urban and rural agriculture.
It was life changing for Moore, who as a 10-year-old dreamed of becoming a pro wrestler. Now he's dreaming about moving out of Blackhawk Courts and in 10 years running an organic farm in California.
"It's warm and I like how it looks out there," said Moore. "I like the vibe."
Online: Rockford Register Star, http://bit.ly/1gxAtti
Information from: Rockford Register Star, http://www.rrstar.com