West Side Farmers: Tilling Soil

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Tracey Redmond (top) points to his house, which sits across an alley from the plot of land he works with his wife, LaDonna (left). (Photo by Louis Byrd III)

Tracey and LaDonna Redmond slowly take in a hot, sunny weekday on their farm–”a plot of land, 150 feet by 300 feet, at 4429 W. Fulton Ave. in the West Side community of West Garfield Park, where every couple of minutes the Green Line elevated train rumbles by.

As the morning unfolds, they keep an eye on their 2-year-old daughter, Taylor, and 4-year-old son, Wade, wait for a city truck to bring them wood chips and show off their rows of tomatoes and collard greens.

A year ago, the two left busy professions to become what they are today: harvesters of crops on once-littered city lots.

Tracey was a commodities broker who had sworn off dairy products and meat. LaDonna was a social worker who had seen that gardening and flowers brought joy to people.

Wade’s birth catapulted them into their current work. While just an infant, he began wheezing, and his face and eyes frequently swelled up. They took him to a series of doctors’ offices and hospitals. “We were scared,” Tracey recalls.

Through avid reading, they began to see connections between the foods Wade ate and his flare-ups of allergies and asthma. They concluded that Wade had reactions to genetically-modified food and dairy and soy products inundated with pesticides.

Living in a community with no chain grocery stores and little access to the fresh, organic food their son needed, the couple kept coming back to the idea of growing it themselves. Tracey and LaDonna had both grown up in the city, but had long dreamed of becoming farmers. Still, they were nervous about moving to a rural area when they had no experience tilling the land.

“LaDonna said, –˜You have to start where you are at,'” Tracey said. “So I did.”

Tell me about yourselves and your family.

LaDonna: I am 38. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. I married Tracey five years ago in September. He is a lifetime resident of the [West Garfield Park] community. He has lived in that house for 35 years. [LaDonna points to a two-story, red brick house with a new wood porch that is kitty-corner to the farm.] My background is basically in social service and community organizing and working with various community-based organizations to improve the quality of life in various aspects.

The idea of reciprocity has stuck with me for a long time. I guess I look at it a little differently because I feel as though we [African Americans] should be the ones who produce things. I wanted to do something from the bottom up. I asked myself: –˜How could I help another mother who has a child born with severe food allergies and lives here in this community?’

Why do you think this community lacks grocery stores?

LaDonna: A number of reasons, probably most of which have to do with racism and classism, not feeling that people who live in an African American community want fresh produce or would buy it. And then, since it is not available, people don’t buy it. It is sort of a catch-22.

And in this community we can access any fast food available. But you try to get out here and find a fresh tomato, or you try to find a nice head of lettuce or a cucumber that doesn’t taste like a brick. The tomato is as hard as a softball. It is tasteless.

How did you start?

Tracey: I called it my micro-organic farm project in my back yard. It consisted of four raised beds something like 4 feet by 10 feet. We were selling food at the farmer’s market in Austin. That was year one, [in 2001]. The next year we came up with the urban farm. We found out organic food was leading in growth. The demand for it was growing and growing. I knew it was healthy.

[At the same time,] I was getting stressed out at my job. I was diagnosed with major depression. So I said, –˜Okay, it is enough.’ The doctor gave me a few months off work, and I ended up not going back. We ended up putting our full effort into this project. That is where it began. –¦ It seemed almost like it made good sense. Everything was lining up.

About two months ago, it was empty back here. We went through a nonprofit organization that is funded by the city called NeighborSpace. They bought the lot with the agreement that we would green it.

We figured we could kill a lot of birds with one big stone. We could go into farming; we could home school our children; we could help rebuild our community.

The Chicago Community Trust gave you a grant for $190,000, and the University of Illinois Extension Program helped you. Did anyone else pitch in?

Tracey: [The nearby John] Marshall [Metro] High School is one of our collaborating partners. They gave us [seeds for] jalapeño peppers, onions, okra, eggplants and tomatoes. A farmer drove all the way from the edge of the Illinois-Wisconsin border with some tomato plants. He wouldn’t let me pay him. He said he wanted to do it because he got started the same way. I was very impressed by that because he came all the way over to the West Side of Chicago.

How has the community reacted?

LaDonna: People have come out and shared with us how you grow food. The wisdom in the community has gone completely untapped. African Americans have a legacy in terms of agriculture that people don’t really know about. Most of the seniors on this block have grown up on farms. Most are from the south. Most had to grow [crops] because they didn’t have money. There was no such thing as Dominick’s and Jewel.

A woman across the street, who has got to be like 80 years old, came over. It took her like five minutes to come down off the porch, but she came. –˜If you want to grow beans,’ she said, –˜you soak them overnight. That will help them sprout.’ She had a cane so she punched it in the soil and said, –˜You plant them about this deep. And they will grow beautifully.’

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