Green Mind

Making a living farming in the inner city? Gardener Neil Dunaetz thinks it just might work.

By Grant Pick

“It’s been decades since people in Chicago have tasted a real tomato,” says Neil Dunaetz, a 44-year-old farmer who oversees a garden on a vacant lot in Englewood. “Mine are so flavorful, and I leave them on the vine right until the end–almost until they go bad–so there’s even more flavor.”

Most community gardens around the city are planted on spare parcels of land by people who want to raise vegetables for their own tables or by schoolteachers who want to show their students how plants grow. That’s all well and good, but it’s not enough for Dunaetz.

In the fall of 1997 Dunaetz began working a quarter acre of land near 65th Street and Harvard, just east of Saint Benedict the African Catholic Church, intending to eventually grow enough high-quality produce to generate a subsistence income. His plan hasn’t yet worked out as he’d hoped, but he and his supporters think the idea of such gardens could transform a city strewn with vacant lots.

Dunaetz uses biointensive organic farming methods pioneered by John Jeavons, a California grower-researcher hailed in environmental circles. Garden beds are deeply dug and slightly raised, loaded with compost, and only lightly watered. Plants are set very close to one another. Jeavons maintained that biointensive gardens could yield two to six times more than conventional gardens, while using a fraction of the water, fertilizer, and energy.

“If you have a quarter acre and are good at biointensive farming, you can make a meager living off the land after several years,” says Dunaetz. “Of course it depends on markets and stuff, and you’re going to have to work much harder than people who think they work hard. Plus you need a lot of knowledge.”

The 70th Street Farm–named after one of his previous gardens–got off to a modest start last season. Sitting beside a handmade cardboard sign, Dunaetz sold his produce at farmers’ markets in South Shore, Englewood, and Hyde Park. At a fall promotional event for the Celebrity Charity Chair Auction he set up a display of some of his tomatoes that caught the attention of Sarah Stegner, a noted chef at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. “His tomatoes were gorgeous,” she says. “I asked Neil if he sold to restaurants. He said he was just getting started. I gave# him a call in a couple months, and we struck a deal.” So far this year Dunaetz has sold her speckled baby romaine lettuce, Japanese turnips, and green scallions with red bulbs. “They’re so sweet,” she says, adding that she’s looking forward to the tomatoes, which will start coming in mid-July.

This year he’s growing 30 kinds of tomatoes, with names like pineapple, brandywine, and big beef. Their vines are already winding up 12-foot stakes, to his unabashed delight. He’s also growing, among other things, melons, eggplant, potatoes, peas, greens, carrots, beets, onions, lettuce, chives, and chard.

Dunaetz knows farming. He began helping out on his family’s farm near Benton Harbor, Michigan, when he was only four. The farm was sold after his parents divorced and he went off to college, but after he dropped out he worked on other farms in southwestern Michigan. In the early 80s he came to Chicago, where he cleaned houses, sold old railroad ties to nurseries, and joined protests against nuclear arms and U.S. intervention in Central America. He then traveled around the world for a year, ending up in California, where he helped his father run a new farm. “I was impressed at how productive the two of us were,” he says, “and it rekindled my interest in agriculture.”

In 1995 he spent three months working as an intern with Steve Rioch, who ran a biointensive-farming program at Ohio University. “I made a promise to Steve,” says Dunaetz. “I said, ‘There’re a lot of vacant lots in Chicago and a lot of unemployment. I’m going to put those lots to work.’ At the end of the three months he probably forgot about my promise, but I felt I had to fulfill it.”

When he got back to Chicago, Dunaetz approached a dozen community groups about supporting his dream of a market garden. “Some expressed an interest,” he says, “but ultimately I didn’t get past go.” Frustrated, he concluded that most groups were “money funnels”–they were good at attracting dollars yet closed to new ideas. But then in 1997 he sent a letter to Sister Eileen Hauswald, pastoral associate at Saint Benedict the African and overseer of a community garden behind the church.

The garden, which covered a third of an acre, had once been shared by a Board of Education adult-education center. The center had been relocated to Kennedy-King College, and only five small plots were still being cultivated, including one that Hauswald tended. “I raise tomatoes, greens, strawberries, and peppers,” she says. She welcomed Dunaetz’s offer to be a partner with the church.

As it worked out, Hauswald kept her garden, an adult group home and some neighbors took other plots, and Dunaetz started his market garden on the remaining quarter acre. He planted winter rye that fall and turned it under in the spring to enrich the soil. He also started plants from seed on cafeteria trays in his sunny apartment. When he could work the soil, he started digging the beds, all with hand tools–a spade, shovel, mattock, and wheelbarrow–and all by himself. “It takes 12 to 14 backbreaking hours to dig a bed,” he says, “and I did 38 last year.”

That May Dunaetz injured his knee in the garden, and he could often be seen wearing a bandanna and cap against the sun, hobbling about his beds on crutches. “Neil probably weighs 90 pounds wet,” says Hauswald, “and he literally moves heaven and earth to make his garden happen.” He’s also finicky, chiding people in the community garden who step on each other’s plots or fail to keep their areas orderly. Hauswald says, “He lets me know he’s not happy when he sees weeds in my section.”

Dunaetz frequently exchanges vegetables for help from his neighbors, and last year he had local youngsters selling from a table at the garden in exchange for 20 percent of the take. “Good-tasting food shouldn’t be just for people who eat in fancy restaurants,” he says. Yet he found that his generosity wasn’t always reciprocated–as much as a third of his crop was stolen. “I wasn’t surprised by that,” he says, “but I have no tolerance for it.”

The net income for the garden in 1998 was disappointing. Gross sales amounted to $3,600, but once expenses were deducted Dunaetz had made a profit of only $150. He got by financially by cleaning houses on the side, and late last year he became a staff member at the nearby Resource Center, a nonprofit recycling and job-creation agency. Ken Dunn, director of the center, saw the potential for jobs in market gardens, and the center took on Dunaetz’s garden as a project, paying him a salary and covering his expenses.

Dunn believes similar gardens could generate lots of jobs for the poor, given that the city now has an estimated 80,000 vacant lots. “We have great hope that an individual can make a living off a garden,” he says. He thinks an individual could make $15,000 annually, though Dunaetz estimates that getting to that point might take up to seven years. “Now sure, $15,000 is a meager wage,” says Dunn, “and to make it demands 80 hours a week at crunch time. But we’re talking a high-quality job for an independent entrepreneur, not a McDonald’s job. And there’s pleasure in the work. Plus you’d have no transportation costs, and you’d spend less on food and entertainment.”

Stegner is enthusiastic about the idea. “This is an idea that everyone at some point thinks of when walking by a empty lot. But who has the knowledge or the will to pull it off?”

This season young people from Saint Benedict the African and the New Visions transition school, which replaced the old adult-education center, are planting the community garden adjoining Dunaetz’s. New Visions is supposed to erect a fence to keep vandals away, and Dunaetz is looking to buy a backhoe. Two more chefs have asked about becoming customers, but he says he doesn’t have enough produce yet to sell to them or at the organic Green City Market, a new city-sponsored market held on Fridays in the Loop. For the time being he can handle only Stegner and the Hyde Park farmers’ market.

Yet the entire garden is now threatened. Saint Bernard Hospital, a 226-bed facility in Englewood, has acquired much of the land for back taxes and is planning to build affordable single-family houses there. Chuck Hollins, Saint Bernard’s director of planning and community development, says there’s a need for the houses because so much of Englewood’s housing stock has been torn down. “But we want to work collaboratively with Neil,” he says, hinting that the hospital will look for other space for Dunaetz and his garden.

Dunaetz knew it would happen eventually, but he’s dismayed at the prospect. “My sweat and blood is on the land now. If they build houses it would be fairly devastating.”

Yet he, an intern at the Resource Center, and a volunteer from Ghana have started a second market garden on 70th Street. And Dunn just submitted a proposal to the city’s planning department, asking it to loan the Resource Center a dozen city lots near 73rd and Dorchester that could be cultivated for up to five years as a way to test the market-garden idea.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.