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Lori Rotenberk's Posts


Back to the land again: Folk schools teach skills for modern-day survival

Robert Schulz, one of the founders of Wisconsin's Driftless School
Robert Schulz, one of the founders of Wisconsin's Driftless School.

With mounting school loans and the uncertainty of finding a job after graduation, 26-year-old Jenny Monfore decided to leave college early and look for alternative education. At the Driftless Folk School in Wisconsin, the Bozeman, Mont., native and massage therapist studied organic food preparation, blacksmithing, and mushroom identification -- skills she hopes will augment her income and allow her to live a more independent lifestyle.

“We no longer have practical skills, we don’t know how to feed ourselves, and we’ve basically become lost,” Monfore says. “So we’re slowly building new, thoughtful communities.”

Folk school: The phrase calls to mind cloggers, birch bark hats, and strains of “If I Had a Hammer.” But these craft schools of yore are experiencing a resurgence of late, drawing young do-it-yourself homesteaders and restless baby boomers to the woods to learn about everything from organic farming to electric cars.

Read more: Living


Rahm Emanuel to Chicago: Eat your f^%$ing veggies!

They're carrots! They're f*&^ing good for you!
Talk Radio News Service
They're carrots! They're f*&^ing good for you!

Not many people would see value in a retired Chicago Transit Authority bus with 500,000 miles on the odometer, a slow engine, and seats bursting at the seams. But in late 2011, a group of Chicagoans looking for a way to transport groceries into their deprived neighborhood had a vision. They bought the bus for $1, and with grant money, made repairs, tore out the seats, and gave it a fresh paint job and a fitting new name: Fresh Moves.

Today, Fresh Moves, a nonprofit serving the city’s south and west sides, has two buses in its fleet, with a third coming in June. When growing season arrives, the crates onboard overflow with locally grown fruits and vegetables. And the lines of residents awaiting its arrival grow longer and longer.

If Mayor Rahm Emanuel has his way, services such as Fresh Moves will soon take root and flourish citywide under a completely revamped food system designed to change the way Chicagoans eat. Emanuel’s recently adopted, $5.8 million Recipe for Healthy Places is a comprehensive agenda seeking to curtail obesity by changing Chicago’s food culture. His goal: to make fresh food affordable and available within a mile of every resident’s home. And why not? This is, after all, home of The Bean.

Read more: Food


Death from above: Chicago’s bird casualties offer clues on climate change

Joseph Mietus

Dave Willard guides the way into a room within Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, where the scene inside is at once ghastly and gorgeous. Soft down floats in the air as chatty biologists tear fistfuls of feathers from corpses of birds large and small. This day's work: sparrows, warblers, thrushes, sapsuckers, and creepers, all among the 3,000 birds collected from last fall’s migration.

It is Wednesday, "prep day" at the museum’s Bird Preparation Lab, the small quarters where Willard, a 66-year-old biologist specializing in ornithology, leads the nation’s most extensive study of migratory birds, most killed by brutal concussion when hitting windows at flight speeds of up to 65 miles per hour.

Because of its location on migratory routes, Chicago’s skyline kills more birds than any other in the country. Navigating by the stars and hungry after flights from as far away as Peru, the birds arrive on Lake Michigan's shoreline in search of food. There, the twinkling city and its canyons become a death trap.

Now, stripped down to the burgundy-brown musculature veined with tissue, the birds are lined up on cafeteria trays, their china-like frames reminiscent of a hat-and-cane vaudeville dance act. There’s a perfume of sweet meat, mothballs, and rot. As the biologists pluck and eviscerate, they sip coffee and talk about football and politics. Then someone carries in a paper tray of what looks to be -- yes, chicken nuggets.

Read more: Cities


This old prison in Illinois may be transformed into a farming paradise

The former Hanna City Work Camp stands deserted in 2003 near Hanna City.
Matt Dayhoff / Journal Star
The former Hanna City Work Camp stands deserted in 2003 near Hanna City.

It's not every day that a former prison work camp is given new life as a place to grow food. But that’s exactly what’s happening in Peoria, Ill., where Hanna City, the shuttered facility that was also once a home for delinquent boys and a 1950s Air Force radar base, is being reborn as a food hub and farm incubator site.

The 40-acre patch of land is growing on local sustainability supporters, who believe it could be easily transformed into a farm training center and production location, helping to boost the local economy and supply food to the region’s vast food deserts.

Closed in 2002 for budgetary reasons, the state signed the prison camp -- complete with a greenhouse and pristine farmland -- over to Peoria County in 2008. But the gift came with conditions and strict instructions; Hanna City can’t be developed or sold. And, if rejuvenated, it must be done for public use only. Also, since it remains an active radar center run by the FAA to track aircraft, nothing metal can be built close by.

John Hamann, the county’s rural economic development director, says the county has considered giving Hanna City back to the state.

Anne Patterson envisions a farm and food hub that utilizes hoop houses like the one she's posing in here to grow food in the cooler months.

“Some of the buildings are falling apart. And inside, it looked as though everyone decided to just up and leave. Papers were still on desks, dishes were on the tables, and pairs of bowling shoes [the camp had a bowling alley for recreation] were left sitting out and untied, like someone just slipped them off,” Hamann says.

It was, as some county officials have admitted, a pretty crappy gift.

That is until Mary Ardapple got her hands on the place. Long interested in food, Ardapple, a Peoria County board member who owns a local bakery, was inspired to re-envision Hanna City after she took a trip to Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, where organic food farms dot the landscape.

Read more: Food


Chicago likes bikes — and it’s about to prove it in a big way

Chris Dilts

Look over your shoulder, Portland, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C. Chicago is about to roll out plans to lay down 645 miles of bike lanes by 2020. If you’re not careful, the Windy City is going to pedal off with the title of Most Bikeable City in the U.S.

Today, the city’s bike-loving mayor, Rahm Emanuel, will unveil the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020, an aggressive bicycling blueprint that was a year in the making. With 30 miles of protected bike lanes already completed and another 70 promised before the end of Emanuel’s first term in 2015, the city’s new cycling infrastructure will weave through every neighborhood, assuring a path within a half-mile of every Chicagoan’s home.

Read more: Cities


Chicago’s urban farm district could be the biggest in the nation

A rendering of the planned urban farm district, which would run along the Chicago's New ERA Trail.

Chicago’s Black Belt area, on the historic South Side, was once a hub for jazz, blues, and literature, but today is riddled with vacant lots, poverty, and blight. Now, a new plan envisions the area as a thriving urban farm district.

In the coming weeks, the city’s planning department is expected to approve the creation of a green belt with a strong focus on urban agriculture within the neighborhood of Englewood. The plan is an element of Chicago’s Department of Housing and Economic Development’s (DHE) Green Healthy Neighborhoods initiative, designed to shepherd and foster redevelopment in 13 square miles of the South Side. Years of disinvestment and population decline have left the area riddled with 11,000 vacant lots totaling 800 acres.

Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner for the DHE, says that although the plan lays out a district “with a small d,” the city has a deep history in urban planning know-how. He, along with other city officials and community organizers, hope the farm district will help stabilize the South Side by putting vacant land to use and creating entrepreneurial and job opportunities. They also expect it to become a model for other city planners as well as a tourist destination for people interested in farming and growing food.

At the core of the blueprint is the three-mile long New ERA (Englewood Re-making America) Trail, which will serve as the “spine” of the farm district, Strazzabosco says. A former railroad line, the three-mile-long trail will become a linear park with foot and bike trails and farm stands. The area designated as the district begins directly across from the trail, as that's where an estimated 100 acres of city-owned, vacant parcels are located. Over time, they can be converted into farms and other agricultural projects.

Read more: Food


The greenest mile: Chicago pushes the limits on sustainable streets

Lori Rotenberk

Cermak Road on Chicago’s West Side is a historic, industrial artery that time almost forgot. The area is cluttered with smokestacks and corrugated steel warehouses, crisscrossed with train tracks and barbed wire fencing, viaducts and underpasses. At its center stands the brick edifice of the soon-to-be-shuttered Fisk coal-fired power plant.

It comes as something of a surprise, then, to learn that this week, city officials will unveil a dramatic overhaul that they say makes a 1.5-mile stretch of Cermak Road the greenest street in the country, and possibly the world.

Read more: Cities


Drama for your farmer: A play captures the demise of the small farm

In late 2007, Mary Swander, Iowa's poet laureate and a professor at Iowa State University, assigned her students a verbatim play about the challenges farmers face.

“I wanted them to learn the complexity of the farming issue, how political, how contentious it is,” she recalls.

Fanning out across the state, the students, many of whom had never set foot on a farm, conducted lengthy interviews with farmers big and small, and immersed themselves, literally, in the agrarian world of livestock, slaughter, and commodity crops, all while gingerly dancing around manure patties.

A student at the time, Rebekeah Bovenmeyer remembers donning a protective white suit so she could see the workings of a hog farmer's farrowing house. “I never knew such a world existed only 10 miles from our campus,” she says.

Some of the farmers were still feeling the impact of the 1980s, a time when hundreds of family farms were lost to skyrocketing interest rates and corporatization. And many deplored the mantra of former-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz: “Get big or get out!”

Back in the classroom, they pulled key elements from the interviews and, as playwrights, began to stitch together the dialogue. Over the winter, Swander, 61, pared it further so the exact words of the vineyard owner and the hog farmer rang true.

The final result was Farmscape: The Changing Rural Landscape, a grassroots play that takes on everything from corporate consolidation to GMOs, climate change, and the rise and fall of the family farm.

Read more: Food


Fruits of old: Chicago gears up for an urban heirloom fruit orchard

Photo by Sarah Hicks.

Chicagoans will crave the Spitzenberg apple, Dave Snyder is certain. Whether in hand or in a morning danish, the name will simply roll off their tongues.

Snyder is an urban farmer and founder of the Chicago Rarities Orchard Project, or CROP. Inspired by author Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire and North Carolina rare-apples grower Creighton Lee Calhoun, Jr., Snyder thought his diverse and congested Logan Square neighborhood a befitting home for the city's first orchard, where rare varieties of apples, such as the Spitzenberg, dangle from branches.

The image wouldn't leave him alone. “I kept seeing all of these abandoned and open spaces and dreamed up this idea,” says Snyder. Determined, the former Seattle resident sporting a Rip Van Winkle-ish beard met with city officials on a quest to find some land.

And find land he did. The city offered CROP land as part of something called the Logan Square Open Space Project [PDF], which transferred the land to NeighborSpace, a nonprofit land trust. City taxes will pay for infrastructure and build-out of the orchard, says Peter Strazzabosco, spokesperson for the Department of Zoning and Land Use Planning, adding that the orchard “is the first of its type for Chicago.” All of the plantings and manpower, Snyder says, will come from CROP.

Orchardist and CROP mastermind Dave Snyder.

The last tweaks to the plan have been finalized by the city, and ground breaking will begin in early 2013. And when completed, what was once a derelict, potholed, and trash-strewn pie-shaped swath of land will transform into one of  the first urban orchards dedicated to juicy fruits from long ago.

Read more: Cities, Food