Tour brings rural and urban producers together


Cold rain couldn’t stop a busload of Illinois Farm Bureau members from experiencing urban agriculture at the Taste of Illinois on Location tour at IFB’s Annual Meeting in Chicago.

This year’s urban agriculture experience included three stops: Windy City Mushroom, Green Era Chicago and Wild Blossom Meadery and Winery. Each visit provided a different perspective on producing in the city and the opportunities for collaboration with rural producers in ensuring food security.

As participants stepped off the bus at the first stop at a building resembling a warehouse, it was a pleasant surprise to walk inside to the familiar sight of an auger.

“We think there’s a huge problem in our food system that we need to be providing people with real food, not synthetic, hybrid, processed or adulterated food,” John Staniszewski, co-owner, head of sales and mycologist for Windy City Mushroom, told FarmWeek. “Being able to offer this up to the community at a low, affordable cost is really what we’re trying to accomplish here.”

Windy City Mushroom was founded at the start of the COVID pandemic due to a shortage of healthy food options, including mushrooms, in the city.

The operation grows three main types of mushrooms: oyster, maitake and lion’s mane, and is planning on expanding the facility. Because mushrooms differ from traditional crops, the company has relied on innovation and experimentation to develop their growing process.

The process includes inoculating a brick of soy-hull and hardwood dust with the different fungi spores and letting the spores incubate and consume the biomass, before moving them into converted shipping containers serving as climate-controlled grow rooms.

Staniszewski said using soy-hull as a substrate presents the opportunity for collaboration.

“There’s a lot of possibilities for more sustainable farming and regenerative farming and I think there’s a big synergy between us because a lot of our substrate can go to their farms and allow their soil to be healthier,” he said.

Staniszewski said the operation can also use pelletized soy-hull for the growing process.

As members stepped off the bus for the second stop of the tour, they were greeted by a mosaic mural on the side of a Metra overpass bridge depicting the cultural significance of local food.

The Green Era Campus is a multi-million-dollar project transforming a 9-acre brownstone by restoring contaminated soil and using an anaerobic digester that processes urban food waste to create renewable natural gas. The anaerobic digester and commercial compost building is estimated to divert 42,500 tons of carbon dioxide.

The campus grows more than 125 varieties of culturally relevant fruits, vegetables, herbs and plants at the greenhouse and urban farm. Once expanded, the campus will increase food accessibility for 2,000 people per year at the retail store and nursery and will provide 500 people per year with educational and life-enriching opportunities in the Community Education Center.

“Experiencing urban agriculture is a wonderful thing,” state Rep. Sonya Harper, D-Chicago, chair of the House Agriculture and Conservation Committee, told FarmWeek.

“I love the way residents in the city are reclaiming their land and taking vacant spaces and putting them to productive use and are taking their food access in their own hands and using these spaces to grow; to create opportunity; to create dialogue; to create community and economic development.”

Harper, who grew up in rural Pembroke, is also excited to see rural and urban farmers discussing shared priorities of ensuring access to healthy food.

“We suffer from the same issues, but we have this energy that I think if done right can really benefit both urban and rural communities, not just in Illinois, but all over the country,” Harper said.

Green Era Campus partners with Urban Growers Collective (UGC) and uses urban agriculture to address structural inequity to food access.

Malcolm Evans, director of farms at UGC, said he became interested in farming at 9 years old after Erika Allen, co-founder of Green Era Campus and co-CEO of UGC, started a community garden in his neighborhood.

“For me and my brothers at the time, we were just trying to see what was going on in the neighborhood, what they do and to get something to eat.

Evans said the garden became a place where he felt safe and learned the impact farming can have on community.

“Folks want this, and I think about us doing this here and these neighborhoods that already have food deserts or the neighborhoods that have shortages of food or no healthy food,” Evans said. “I think this is going to change the world. The neighborhood is going to feel safer because of what we’re doing.”

The third stop on the tour offered members a warmer afternoon experiencing the delicious result of Greg Fischer’s busy beehives at Wild Blossom Meadery and Winery.

For more than two decades, Wild Blossom Meadery and Winery has been using local ingredients to produce sustainable beverages and building a “strong food system.”

For each bottle of wine produced, the company estimates around 2 million flowers are pollinated by their bees, producing between 20 to 40 million seeds.

“Bees themselves are very important to agriculture. We need bees and actually the bees are almost telling us the state of the state, almost like a canary in a coal mine,” Fischer said. “Bees are really sometimes the foundation of the ag system, and the more bees are healthy, then we’re getting more crops.”

Fischer, who grew up on a farm in upstate New-York, said he enjoys working with farmers to build a strong food system that doesn’t rely on other countries.


Content for this story was provided by