Growing in Green Space
Turning green space — or any available space — into food production is an agricultural art. “There is a lot of untapped potential in cities and urban gardening scenes,” said Amanda Anderson, urban agriculture program manager for the Gary Comer Youth Center in Chicago. “It doesn’t matter where you are from — everyone has access to land that is not conventionally thought of as space you can grow food.”
And that’s just what competitors had to figure out at the first ever Illinois Career Development Event (CDE) in Urban Agriculture and Food Production last spring. As part of the competition, the students had to create a plan for growing food in unique spaces.
Luke Allen, a program advisor for Facilitating Coordination in Agricultural Education — part of the Illinois State Board of Education — created the competition so students could showcase their talents and knowledge of plant-based food production.
“The goal is to inspire students to think about how they can use the resources in their community to grow food,” Allen said. “This contest shows how you can turn a hobby garden into a thriving business.”
CDEs are competitive events, typically done in conjunction with FFA, that push competitors to develop college and career readiness. CDEs can range in subject matter from public speaking to livestock evaluation and everything in between.
Allen said he saw a void in the state agriculture curriculum and FFA contest offerings — no events were focused on plant-based food production and team collaboration.
Business Development in Action
The Gary Comer Youth Center hosted the 2022 event on its campus. Anderson said the competition brought the lessons of her classes full circle for the students who competed.
“Our students were able to showcase the skills they learned while working on our farm,” Anderson said. “They saw the skills they have can translate into a legitimate agriculture career, right in their own communities.”
The invitational event gathered 18 teams comprised of 65 students to compete. Prior to the event, students completed a written test. Then, they worked in teams on various practical skill sets, including presenting an urban agriculture business plan and a presentation on food handling.
Students were also challenged to look at six growing locations and create plans for food production in those spaces.
Anderson said the challenge of creating a business plan as a group and then pitching it to others had her students thinking outside of the box, learning the skills of collaboration and public speaking.
Allen hopes the contest inspires students to look for the potential to grow food in different ways and address community food access and insecurity concerns. Anderson said the school, based on Chicago’s South Side, produces 17,000 pounds of food a year utilizing 1.75 acres and a rooftop garden.
“Most schools have acres of grass on their campuses that could be sites for food production,” Allen said. “This is more than just urban areas — it’s looking at what’s around you and understanding which plants would grow there.”
Allen collaborated with other agriculture education leaders across the nation on the contest, and he said he believes it’s the first of its kind in the nation. The Compeer Financial Fund for Rural America supported the event with a one-time gift in 2022 and is supporting it again in 2023.
“With some creativity and knowledge, the unconventional can become conventional,” Allen noted. “That’s what we are trying to highlight with our students.”
About the Illinois Urban Agriculture & Food Production Career Development Event
- 18 teams, 65 students participated in spring 2022
- Test knowledge about growing food
- Skills displayed:
- written test
- plant identification
- environmental site selection practicum
- food product packaging activity
- evaluation of good products
- "urban agriculture business plan" group presentation
This article was originally printed in the Summer 2023 edition of Compeer Financial's Cultivate magazine.
Photos courtesy of Facilitating Coordination in Agricultural Education and Gary Comer Youth Center.