Mecca Bey (left) and Bweza Itaagi (right), founders of Sistas in the Village, tend to their farm at Urban Growers Collective in South Chicago. Credit: Davon Clark/City Bureau

This story was produced by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Bronzeville. Learn more and get involved at

For Chicago’s burgeoning BIPOC farmers, urban farming is about more than just feeding their communities; it’s often a pathway to healing their spirits and the soil itself, rooted in ancestral practices and lessons learned from grandparents before their migration north, or parents who crossed the border. 

Amid a pandemic where food insecurity rose and grocery stores, at times, shuttered, BIPOC farmers on the south and the west side stepped in to donate fresh produce, run hyperlocal CSAs (community supported agriculture), and bring neighbors into the fold of how to run an urban farm. Chicagoans’ struggle to access nutritious food predates COVID-19; however, the subsequent economic downturn and exacerbated hunger crisis was so significant last year that food insecurity in Cook County was projected to increase by 48 percent from 2019 to 2020, according to Feeding America.

To pull back the curtain, City Bureau spoke to 14 urban farmers to understand what the hustle is really like growing food for their communities on the south and west sides. All of those interviewed want to develop more community-rooted food systems on the city’s 32,000 vacant lots despite the challenges of a single growing season and ongoing struggles to access land and water. They hope the city may one day recognize their potential by investing more seriously in urban farming, or at least curb barriers to farming. 

In their own words, here is how they’ve healed themselves, some of Chicago’s soil, and what they want from the city. 

I. ‘Farming is a spiritual thing; it’s magic’

Dulce Margarita Morales, Cedillo’s Fresh Produce: Nobody’s dictating to us what to grow, what to eat, and how to eat it, or when to eat it. So I think that when we take control of our food, it’s a revolutionary act.

Chef Mel Carter, Sunflower Soule Farm: If it were up to me, I’d be out here doing more guerilla gardening—without anybody’s permission. People need food and that’s just the bottom line. It makes zero sense that people in a city like this are literally starving and there’s land to grow food on.

Chef Fresh Roberson, Fresher Together LLC: A growing place is a place of refuge, a place of care that you can immerse yourself into that feels very healing. My favorite Fannie Lou Hamer quote is, “When you have 400 quarts of greens and gumbo soup canned for the winter, can’t nobody push you around or tell you what to say or do.”

Bweza Itaagi, Sistas in the Village: For us, it’s important to make sure that the food that we’re growing stays within our community. Because we want to make sure that we’re contributing to a more holistic ecosystem that circulates both food and our money, so that our communities can have everything they need. For us, by us.

Kenya Vera-Sample, DuSable City Ancestral Winery & Vineyards LLC: Farming is a spiritual thing; it’s magic. When we control our food and know that we’re having proper nutrition, and it’s going into our bodies and into the bodies of our community, it’s security. 

II. ‘Anytime you have a garden, you always have enough for yourself, and you always have a little bit to give to somebody else’

Alex Pate, City Farm Chicago: On a very basic level, I don’t think I’ve ever worked this much. I spend so much of my time at the farm, at least 60 hours a week, but I’ve never loved work as much as I do this. It consumes my life, but luckily, it’s really what I want to be doing. I have friends who work 60 hours too, but they’re just sitting at a desk. 

Vera-Sample: Anytime you have a garden, you always have enough for yourself, and you always have a little bit to give to somebody else. That’s the beauty of who we are as a people. You know your place in the world and know who you are, deeply. 

Anna Acosta, Tierra Y Paz Urban Farm: This is where I find a place to heal from the crazy city life and, you know, all the trauma that I’ve endured in my life. I just love to grow, I love to give things away, I love to feed. I don’t know if it’s tied to losing my parents at an early age and wanting to grow that connection with folks. 

Rachel Nami Kimura, Hinata Farms: The people that come out to the farm have said volunteering, being outside and working here, was the highlight of their week. I’m glad to be able to do that, especially last year, during the shutdown; a lot of people lost their jobs, a lot of people lived by themselves, and the pandemic has taken a toll on mental health for a lot of people. 

Margarita Morales: I have not been to Mexico for 33 years so I had no idea how much I had missed having those trees and nature around me. My farm is a haven. It’s healed my anxiety and depression, and a very toxic relationship with work. I didn’t understand how bad work was affecting my body, that adrenaline rush from the restaurant. Working on the land, it’s very different. You literally stop and smell the roses and see every plant and how it’s doing. And you got to check for pests. You watch all the different birds. I’m sure everybody hears the cicada, but it’s just all the different noises combining together while farming; it takes you to a different place. With a lot of past trauma, you know, it’s hurry, hurry, grow, live, die. But you appreciate life and you appreciate death at the same time when you’re growing your own food.

Ireri Unzueta Carrasco, Catatumbo Cooperative Farm: Farming helps me rethink my own relationship to the land. For the longest time, I didn’t think I was going to stay in Chicago. I was always trying to figure out how to get my family to go back to Mexico. Twenty-something years later, I’m still here, I’ve made deep connections with friends who I’ve known since I was 14. And I’m not so sure that I want to leave anymore. And so when I started working closely with the land, I felt little pieces of thoughts coming up, like, the trees don’t care about borders, and birds migrate all the time. And like, seeds have different ways of dispersing, right? 

III. ‘It’s the hustle of growing in Chicago’ 

Jazmin Martinez, Catatumbo Cooperative Farm: Being a BIPOC farmer is no different than being a person of color in Chicago—it’s a racist city with racist policies, and those things affect us every day. As a grower, there are still real issues of not having land access, funding, or technical support. There’s still co-option and tokenization of BIPOC growers, where organizations and institutions say they support BIPOC growers but still, they don’t give growers of color leadership positions. Then if you look at the internal leadership, how many growers of color can you say are in leadership positions in any organization in Chicago? Very, very few. And then you start to broaden it and ask, Why don’t you have water and land access? And you recognize that it’s tied to all this history and legacy of redlining and disinvestment from the south and west side communities. 

Safia Rashid, Your Bountiful Harvest: We’ve been working on trying to acquire land from the city, and that’s been basically four years. It’s just going through the city’s process, and their departments are not really communicating with each other. Somebody is saying, “Yeah, you can,” and this other person is like, “No, you gotta do this first.”

Safia Rashid, a founder of Your Bountiful Harvest, cleans and prepares produce at her South Chicago farm located at Urban Growers Collective. Credit: Davon Clark/City Bureau

Vera-Sample: We got 20 pounds of tomatoes, ten pounds of kale, but the farmers’ market is not until Sunday. So we’ve harvested, but where do we keep all this? The refrigerator? Transportation? There are huge gaps in the food production chain, and while there’s a lot of Black farmers who can cover the growing of food, it’s the processing, GAP [Good Agricultural Practices] certifications, storage, resources, and transportation [costs that stack up]. We are trying to compete with major businesses with all kinds of resources. 

Beatrice Kamau, Multiple Harvest LLC:  I grew the eggplants into rows three feet wide and 60 feet long, but once I harvested, I could only sell to two people because people like to buy in quantities. They try to buy a lot so that they can put them in their deep freezer so they can use it over the winter. So the space that I use is not enough for the [African diaspora] market that I’m trying to target. 

Kimura: In Chicago, having a winter where you can’t grow and then having the growing season inversely super intense is difficult. I still haven’t figured out how to make it make sense financially. It gets so busy that it’s hard to focus on it during the growing season. 

Margarita Morales: It’s the hustle of growing in Chicago. Every single grower I know has a full-time job and is growing simultaneously. Farming here is not making us rich, monetarily; it’s making us rich in other ways. So if the big day Armageddon comes, we will survive. All my friends who are not farmers are like, “Yeah, when Armageddon comes, we know where to go.” Like, don’t come to me [then] because I can show you right now how to grow your food.

IV. ‘This aspect of thinking about the land as more than just something that you get to take from’ 

Martinez: BIPOC growers in Chicago are not a monolithic community. A lot of the work is centered around how we want to reimagine the realities that we live in, in super hyperlocal spaces and places. What works in Little Village is not going to 100 percent work in Englewood and vice versa. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t and are not working together to strategize, brainstorm, and learn from each other. 

Unzueta Carrasco: Everyone has been like, “You need resources? Here’s this thing that I’m not using anymore. Do you need advice? Feel free to call us and see how we’re doing things, come over.” The community that we have with farmers of color throughout Chicago comes with sharing and growing, and this aspect of thinking about the land as more than just something that you get to take from. 

Kimura: Chicago has a lot of passionate people that are optimists at heart, that aren’t doing it for the money but because they love their community. When people are a part of something like a farm or a garden, you start to also see the challenges, and then when you have something that you want to fight for, you start fighting for it.

Anna Acosta, founder of Tierra Y Paz Urban Farm at Star Farm Chicago in Back of the Yards, picks a ripe tomato. Credit: Davon Clark/City Bureau

Acosta: You got your food deserts, you got your food swamps. It’s just so much easier and cheaper to buy from a fast-food restaurant. You got dollar meals. You look at disinvested neighborhoods, and you don’t see the delicious fresh produce markets that you see in particular neighborhoods across the city. On the south side, particularly in Back of the Yards, there are so many urban gardens and farms and for the most part, the food stays within this neighborhood and we’re feeding our folks. 

Natasha Coleman, Coleman Pharaoh Garden: Just having green space, filled with fruits, vegetables, and flowers, is good overall energy for people in the community. It gives you a sense of, you know, like, someone cares. “Let’s not throw trash here because this is beautiful.”

V. ‘Leave your cares and worries at the door, because the ancestors have already made room’

Itaagi: When people come to volunteer with us, specifically Black, Brown, Indigenous people who maybe have never been in a garden space or haven’t farmed before, it takes a little bit to adjust and to get into the flow. And then you find that people are like, “Oh, this, this just feels natural.” A lot of what we know is just natural knowledge that we have passed down generationally and ancestrally. Our people are agriculturalists. We know how to grow food, we know how to work in harmony with the earth, we just have to remind ourselves and tap back into that. 

Martinez: Everything I know about growing is because of the lineage of campesinos that come from my family, what I hold dear to my heart, the practices that my family has had for decades in Mexico. For me it’s about taking part of my lineage and adapting it, and changing it to this context, to this land. Chicago has its own land, its own soil, its own weather, even within the different regions.

Mecca Bey, Sistas in the Village: Leave your cares and worries at the door, because the ancestors have already made room. We’ve already asked and been invited to be in this environment to do exactly what we were gifted and honored to do, and that’s to honor this land and grow food.

Margarita Morales: We plant in an organic and Indigenous way, with lots of companion planting, where the plants help each other. Pesticides are very harmful to us and to our kids. We want to make sure that we’re educating people on how important it is to eat organic. 

Kamau: Most people think, “Oh, farm work is too much work.” And I agree but then I see the changes in the soil; the more you preserve the soil, the better it becomes. You see the mushrooms sprout up that are adding something good to the soil and the relationship between plants and the bugs, and you feel the connection. It’s become kind of therapeutic. 

Coleman: Most of the time, I’m talking to the plants.

Kimura: There are a lot of Asian Americans in Chicago who want to find a connection to the earth, their community, and their heritage; I open up my space for people to experience farming. Then they harvest and cook, and if they don’t know how to cook it, they end up calling their mom or their grandma to get recipes. 

VI. ‘I don’t think this city actually wants urban farmers’ 

Carter: For a lot of farms, their main interaction with the city has been about hydrant access, which to me is really utterly ridiculous. [The city’s] main interest is just collecting money. At first, they were all concerned because of the pandemic, and then as soon as that was over they hit us with these fees.

A customer shops for fresh, local produce at Urban Growers Collective’s weekly farm stand in South Chicago. Credit: Davon Clark/City Bureau

Acosta: When the city changed rules on hydrant water access, it was total BS. Like we’re not a huge agribusiness, we’re not out to make a billion dollars, we’re just out to water our garden and to pop up at markets and provide fresh produce to our neighborhoods.

Margarita Morales: The fire hydrant has a cap, so we’re not able to use it. There’s a permit that we didn’t even apply for this year. We are able to access this land that belongs to NeighborSpace but we do not have the money to buy it. We would love to be able to own it, but I feel that it’s a big challenge for us, money-wise. So we’ll just continue to lease as long as they allow us to stay, or God knows what’s next. 

Coleman: Make water more affordable for gardeners and farmers. The city could have done more to extend the dollar lot program to farmers to engage more than just homeowners—people who want to build up their community and do something positive.

Carter: I want to own my stuff. I want something that has my government name on it.

Pate: Ownership is key. I also can understand those in farming circles that don’t believe in land ownership, generally, that humans can’t own land in a literal sense. I’m all for the principle of it, but that’s not the way things are. If you don’t own land, then you’re just shit out of luck. If you’re talking long-term production of land, and the building of healthy micro-ecosystems in the soil, and soil remediation, and establishing ecosystems where animals can thrive annually, that’s resolved by land ownership by the farmers. 

Kimura: I don’t think this city actually wants urban farmers. The fact is it’s not easy to grow here in Chicago because of the policies and bureaucratic roadblocks that are in place, and a lot of urban growers have space in temporary land situations, like on vacant lots in agreement with whoever owns the land, but once that land gets a good offer the owners sell. Unless you own it, you can’t stay safe for very long.

VII. ‘Start listening to growers, who really do intentional community work’

Acosta: Urban farmers, especially folks of color, should not have all these extra layers of challenges when trying to set up farming spaces. To me, it’s about reparations; we shouldn’t even have to fight. There’s not a caucus on the City Council that is dedicated to urban growing yet, and that’s what we need. 

Kamau: What the city can do is try to make it conducive for us to be able to grow and get access to land, even empty city lots, and water. I love to grow my vegetables, I love the city of Chicago, and, you know, I would love to continue growing here.

Bweza Itaagi of Sistas in the Village holds up freshly harvested potatoes on her farm at Urban Growers Collective in South Chicago. Credit: Davon Clark/City Bureau

Pate: A lot of people who are farming don’t have tons of money. Farming itself is not lucrative. And urban farming does not receive the same types of funding and government support that rural farming does. 

Margarita Morales: There’s so much space available, all we need is maybe four plots, and we could make it work. We could feed so many families with those four plots. But the city doesn’t care for farmers, in my opinion. If they were more caring towards us, they would make things a lot easier, especially with the water access. If they understood the value of a farmer for the ecosystem they would definitely change the way things are.

Martinez: You’ll see a lot of work and effort being put into a message, a vision, a narrative, to really show that Chicago is a leading urban ag city. But given all the things that have happened in the last year, we need to start having honest and frank conversations about what has not worked and what is not working. And that requires people in leadership positions to not be offended, not take it personally, not get defensive, when people have genuine concerns. Start listening to growers, who really do intentional community work. Give funding directly to growers without or with little restrictions. You can’t just say that the vacant lot program and vacant lots are a solution to issues that we have regarding food access, because they’re just vacant lots. They need to be capped, they need to be remediated. People need to be tending and taking care of little spots. And you need to give people the resources, the funding, and the support to do that.