It’s a cold Sunday morning in March, and I’m hovering over two newborn goat kids with a hair dryer. The kids—one black, one white—came as a surprise, the product of an unsanctioned goat romance, and we have to get them warm and dry if they’re going to survive the lingering Chicago winter. Hunched over next to me is Carolyn Ioder, who owns GlennArt Farm alongside her husband, David, a retired Chicago Public Schools teacher. Carolyn wipes her brow and pushes a space heater closer to the smaller kid, who is having trouble latching for his first gulp of milk. For me, this is an unusual Sunday. For the Ioders, it’s just another one of the delightful and disarming moments they’ve come to expect after nine seasons of urban goat farming a few blocks west of the Central Green Line stop.
GlennArt Farm operates out of the Ioders’ home (built from a Sears kit in 1909) on West Midway Park, a picturesque street in the racially taut space between South Austin and Oak Park. They bought the home, Carolyn says, because of Midway Park’s old-school neighborhood feel. “Streets like Midway Park are hard to find these days,” she says. However, when the Ioders moved in, they found themselves situated between two dramatically different neighborhoods that rarely intersected. Oak Park is a land of cobblestone sidewalks and high-priced natural grocery stores; meanwhile, according to the Sun-Times, Austin saw 180 homicides in 2018, more than 30 percent of the Chicago Police Department’s reported homicides for the year. Oak Park residents have a median household income of $87,402, while more than 40 percent of Austin households make less than $25,000 a year, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.
Admittedly, when I booked my room at GlennArt for a two-month sublet through Airbnb’s extended-stay function, I thought I was staying in ritzy Oak Park. I needed a temporary home during my relocation from Springfield, Missouri, to Chicago, and an urban goat farm sounded like the perfect destination for my Boston terrier and me. I’m one of four other long-term guests living at the Ioder home, and we spend our evenings swapping jokes and playing Rummikub. I’m comfortable here, but when I tell people I live in South Austin, I’m met with raised eyebrows and told to stay away from the Central Green Line station. I get it: I’m a stocky white woman with a chirpy voice, and the Central station has a reputation. Still, I wonder if the bearers of those well-meaning warnings have ever actually ventured to the west side. There’s a community here—a community the Ioders hope to strengthen with their unorthodox tourist attraction.
Carolyn and David are both the products of several generations of midwestern farmers, which is why Carolyn decided to launch the farm as a side project while homeschooling their son, Arthur. She had her hands full with chickens and bees, but soon she began looking for new ways to make the farm more financially viable. “David caught me looking at Craigslist at goats for sale,” she says, laughing. Soon enough, she had acquired two pregnant Saanen goats. Carolyn placed the goats in a 20-by-20-foot enclosure in the privately owned community garden at the eastern end of Midway Park, working with community garden representatives and a private landowner to ensure a smooth transition. There was a steep learning curve. “We had no institutional memory of keeping animals in the city at all,” she says. “It took me a month and a half to grow the grasses in their original enclosure. They ate it in one day.”
The average full-sized adult goat consumes about 14 pounds of food per day, most of which takes the form of hay, grass, or another grazing material. Now the Ioders manage a herd of nine goats—including the two surprise kids, who are doing just fine—along with a flock of laying hens, four cats, and a friendly dog named Jack. They feed their herd with the help of donated produce hauls from several area groceries and food co-ops.
The hauls help the farm manage costs, but they also serve as a major boon to the neighborhood. The first time Carolyn received a produce haul from the Oak Park Whole Foods, the store threw in a massive amount of untouched goods including orange juice and cut fruit. Now Carolyn has an agreement with area groceries: She takes what they don’t want, whether that be slightly damaged containers of orange juice or day-old pastries. Then she sends out twice-weekly texts to a group of 14 neighborhood residents who need the food, either for personal use or to distribute to other food-insecure households. The food recipients include Patrick Daniels, a program manager with local nonprofit UCAN. Headquartered on the west side, UCAN supports at-risk youth and families, providing trauma therapy, employment assistance, and academic encouragement. Daniels regularly picks up nutritious food for program participants as well as baked goods to celebrate birthdays. Daniels calls the west side home, and he sees a positive tide turning in the neighborhood. “People here have giving spirits,” he says.
Bonni McKeown, a blues musician who lives up the street, agrees. “This is a nice place to be if you’re having a tough time. This stuff helps,” she says, gesturing to the two tote bags she’s filled with cheese, olives, produce, and croissants.
I met Bonni on a Friday during one of the Ioders’ food pickup days. She and I sat down with Harry Roundtree, who had scored a hunk of Whole Foods goat cheese to sauté with beans. Roundtree has been in the neighborhood since 1985, raising his two children here while working as a jail chaplain and a community activist. “Back in those days, we’d have cab drivers come in and drop dope off in the alley behind my house,” Roundtree says. Now, he says, the street activity isn’t as bad thanks to the influx of social media—dealers conduct business over Instagram, and pick-ups have moved indoors. However, while social media has reduced blatant drug exchanges on his block, he says it’s also diminished the neighborhood’s community feel. “People don’t get out anymore like they used to,” he says, reminiscing about the old days of stoop sitting. “The sense of being a human being has changed now.” Still, Roundtree tries to connect with his fellow west siders. “I’ll walk by a liquor store in the neighborhood, and the young men outside call me Pops,” he says. For Roundtree, GlennArt isn’t just a place to stock up on healthy food—it’s a place to socialize. After our chat, he greets another farm regular who goes only by Miss Thomas. He pulls out a chair so she can relax for a few minutes. “God bless you, Miss Thomas,” he says.
The Ioders also sell the fruits of their labor—goat milk, goat cheese, fresh eggs, and the like—to their fellow west siders, who order the products online and pick them up at the farm. For some families, it’s a way to access healthy, responsibly-farmed food without trekking to Oak Park, where markups at Whole Foods and Pete’s Fresh Market are high.
Despite the farm’s noble aspirations, urban goat farming presents several unique challenges. “Goats are meant for mountains,” Carolyn says, pointing out that the soft and spongy Illinois ground can wreak havoc on sensitive hooves. Then there’s the lack of space. The Ioders have had to get creative, forging relationships with neighborhood landowners who allow the goats to graze on their unoccupied lots. The Ioders also have an agreement with the nearby Garfield Park Conservatory, where the goats graze in the summer months. The system has required a fair amount of negotiation with local government officials, including 29th Ward alderman Chris Taliaferro. Those government relationships are key to endeavors like the Ioders’ recent proposal to waive neighborhood landowners’ mowing requirements, which would allow the goats to munch on the overgrown lots.
Funding is another issue. 2018 marked the farm’s first profitable year, the result of GlennArt’s hugely popular goat yoga classes. During the classes, yoga practitioners head to a nearby goat pasture to enjoy an hour-long vinyasa flow alongside the curious goat kids, who have been known to hop onto students’ backs during floor poses. For the Ioders, the classes are more than an income source: they’re a means to bring visitors into South Austin, breaking the so-called “Green Line stigma” and stimulating the local economy.
Unfortunately, the success of these urban agriculture operations are often met with resistance. Take, for example, the Root-Riot community garden at the east end of Midway Park. The garden’s lot is currently owned by an out-of-state landowner; however, if it changes hands and the new landowner chooses to develop the space, the garden may have to cease operations. Garden stakeholders are currently partnering with NeighborSpace, a nonprofit urban land trust, to purchase the land (the group takes donations at neighbor-space.org). The group has until August to come up with $70,000, and they’re optimistic. Still, it’s an example of the constant push and pull faced by practitioners of urban agriculture.
Despite its challenges, GlennArt Farm seems to have activated the neighborhood’s underlying community spirit. For Carolyn, the secret to the farm’s success lies in community support in the form of traveling volunteers, curious neighborhood kids, and previously incarcerated farm employees. The latter two groups often use the farm as a means of income and a way to enter—or reenter—the job market.
Getting dirty on the farm can also be an escape from the often-harsh realities of life on the west side. That’s the case for Kamari, a 13-year-old who lives across the street and is going on her third year helping out on the farm. A lifelong Austin resident, Kamari has mixed feelings about the neighborhood. “Every other week, there’s somebody getting shot,” she says. She finds that working with animals helps her cope with the anxiety that can accompany life in Austin. It’s also a way for her to connect with a side of nature that some may see as intimidating. “I just love animals,” she says. “I want people to know that animals aren’t vicious. Like, sometimes, people are scared of the goats or think they’re harmful, but I want people to know that most animals aren’t harmful.”
Kamari is one of the dozens of individuals who’ve used the farm as a stress relief tool over the years. “Animals bring out a need for repetition, regularity, and routine,” Carolyn says. “People need desperately to be in touch with nature, especially in the city. We have tapped into that longing.”
While the Ioders are passionate about building community, they’re firmly opposed to the gentrification that’s currently sweeping through Chicago’s other majority-Black and Latinx neighborhoods. The Ioders aren’t interested in replacing the neighborhood’s heritage; instead, they’d rather expose Chicago-area residents to Austin’s unique personality. Events like goat yoga bring people to the west side, sometimes for the first time. The hope is that, after that first trip on the Green Line, visitors will be more likely to return for a visit—say, to explore the Garfield Park Conservatory or to patronize one of the Black-owned businesses that line Chicago Avenue, Austin’s main drag.
Through it all, Carolyn’s focus remains on the neighborhood. “People come here, and they can see that animals live and die,” she says. “They have babies. They grow, they play around. They provide you with memories.” Ultimately, witnessing that circle of life can be healing. Speaking as a newly indoctrinated goat birth assistant—placenta tissue does, in fact, wash out of denim—I can confirm that urban farming offers a perspective on life that’s as stark as it is beautiful. In a way, it’s a lot like Austin. There’s pain here, but there’s also promise.
I joined Carolyn on a stroll to the goat yoga pasture a few weeks back. It was a particularly temperate day, and a man in his early 30s was relaxing on his fourth-floor terrace across the street. He waved at us, yelling down to ask when the goats were coming back to the pasture for their spring grazing. “They’re my friends!,” he hollered. “I miss those guys.” Carolyn assured him they’d be back soon. v
Goat yoga 5/25-July: Sat-Sun 9 AM and 3 PM; also Mon 5/27, 3 PM, GlennArt Farm, 5749 W. Midway Park, 847-612-7315, glennartfarm.com, $26.