New Ordinance Brings New Opportunities for Urban Agriculture

By Anna Boisseau

CHICAGO—As part of the Food Justice and Sustainability weekend, dozens of local environmentalists came out on a frigid Sunday to learn more about Chicago’s new composting ordinance. Set to go into effect this spring, the ordinance will give urban farms and community gardens the chance to improve their compost piles. Some will even sell the finished product.

The ordinance creates two new categories of composters: larger scale urban farms, and tier two facilities, like community gardens. After registering with the city, these agricultural organizations can increase the size of their operation and include offsite materials. Though they cannot accept money for taking organic waste, urban farms will be able to sell their compost.

According to Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, these changes are important for urban farmers in Chicago because much of the city’s soil has a high lead level. “You can’t just grow crops on vacant lots because the soil might be contaminated,” she said.

Lauralyn Clawson, who represented urban farm Growing Power during the ordinance’s development, said farmers can grow anywhere if they use a compost base. By using healthy compost, farmers can increase soil fertility, which leads to greater production. “You obviously can’t really grow urban agriculture if you don’t have the soil you need,” she said.

Additionally, Walling said compost chemistry is greatly improved by including organic waste from offsite locations, as piles require a balanced ratio of nitrogens and carbons. Smaller producers like community gardens, as well as those in the urban farm category, will now be able to seek out ingredients to cultivate good compost. Previously, community gardens were unable to compost food scrap that their members brought from home.

Paul Krysik, who works for the Chicago Botanical Garden’s urban farming initiatives, attended the event to learn more about the new regulations. “I’m sure as we get more farms and land our composting operation is going to scale up,” he said. He added that on-site composting provides a great learning opportunity for participants in his organization’s programs with youth and ex-offenders.

The ordinance, which passed last summer, is the result of a coalition effort between the City of Chicago and groups like the Illinois Environmental Council, Growing Power, and Advocates for Urban Agriculture. Walling said that though the environmental groups accomplished most of their policy goals, the city wouldn’t budge on enforcement. Under the ordinance, if gardens and farms are composting illegally, they will face a fine of $300 to $600.

Walling hoped for a warning system. She fears the city might ticket gardens with legal compost piles if they don’t receive the training to recognize the difference. “We want to make sure that they know what a good operation is and what is not a good operation,” she said.

A gardener walks around The Lurie Garden at Millennium Park. (Brad Hagan/Creative Commons via Flickr