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Raising the Prairie: The Nation’s First Organic Roof Farm Rises in Chicago

By Jeanne Roberts |

In Chicago, where green-roof culture has gone from a fad to a standard, a restaurant roof on Chicago’s north side has acquired the nation’s first designation, by the Midwest Organic Services Association (M.O.S.A.), as an organic rooftop farm.

It started as a passion for sustainability on the part of Uncommon Ground restaurateurs Helen and Michael Cameron, who for 17 years built enduring relationships with regional organic farmers, and then – when scouting a new location for their restaurant in 2007 – decided to try organic farming themselves.

Their 2,500-square-foot rooftop farm, thirty feet above the pavement at 1401 W. Devon Ave., is ably managed by Farm Director Natalie Pfister, a graduate of Chicago’s Art Institute, where she obtained a degree in sculpture.

The career change, from art to farming, is not as big a leap as one might imagine, according to Pfister.

“In fact, they’re pretty darn close, in terms of creativity. I’m faced with problems every day in relation to the farm, and the solutions I devise require a kind of creativity that bridges very nicely.”

In addition to the rooftop farm, Uncommon Ground also has a roughly 400 square-foot, street-level garden and a parking lot where, on Fridays, a farmer’s market features eggs, produce and fruit from an organic farm in Wisconsin, certified organic lamb from Illinois-based Mint Creek Farms, and organic berries from pick-your-own Kismet Farm in southwestern Michigan. Oh, and did we mention the live entertainment, local artist’s displays, or the beer tastings?

Uncommon Ground sponsors the farmer’s market, but doesn’t sell its own produce. That is reserved for restaurant use, including not only the 17 varieties of tomato grown for summer menus, but the peas, beans, cantaloupe, watermelon, herbs and edible flowers used to garnish drinks, hors d'oeuvres and entrées.
In winter, expect to find hearty, wholesome menu items like pumpkin soup or potatoes au gratin, because Uncommon Ground, in keeping with its philosophy of sustainable food, doesn’t serve vegetables out of season. When a specific item is needed, but not available from the rooftop organic garden (which has no greenhouse yet), it is purchased from local organic farms, or the Green City Farmer’s Market, Chicago’s only year-round market promoting locally-grown produce.

This farm-to-table mentality extends beyond the restaurant, into partnerships with city schools, whose students tour the organic rooftop garden, learn about sustainable urban agriculture and – after getting their hands dirty planting a few vegetables – suddenly understand that mangoes, in Chicago, in winter, is not a sustainable food practice.

Some of the students, inspired by Pfister’s passion, may go back and create their own mini-gardens, on rooftops or balconies or even fire escapes.

“We promote the idea that everyone should be growing their own food, and that it’s possible even in the city.”

In another measure aimed to support that sustainability, Uncommon Ground uses heirloom seeds. These seeds, from varieties that have been in continuous cultivation for over 100 years, are in danger of becoming extinct as hybridization and genetically modified organisms increasingly dominate agriculture. Their loss, should it ever occur, would result in a limited and potentially devastating loss of biodiversity for food crops – a loss of diversity that already threatens to overwhelm banana culture worldwide.

Pfister, who acquired much of her horticultural experience from her mother, Ginny Thomsen – who farmed their Colorado property extensively – also did a lot of educational outreach in college, as well as volunteering on organic farms and working in sustainable restaurants.

“I have a really deep love of food.” Pfister admits, laughing – a love demonstrated in her almost painstaking care of, and familiarity with, the Uncommon Ground organic rooftop farm.

It’s more than a full-time job; Pfister also cares for four rooftop hives of honeybees, along with owner Helen. Fortunately, she has about seven interns, mostly from Chicago’s world-famous Loyola University.

Sustainability also extends beyond food production into the restaurant itself, where custom-built benches, created by local craftsman from reharvested wood (i.e., wood salvaged from old buildings and furnishings), offer customer seating. The rooftop garden also uses five solar panels that heat almost 70 percent of the water used in the restaurant, and recycles water from rooftop cultivation through drain pipes and into rain barrels around the building’s perimeter. However, the organic designation prohibits using water from the restaurant operations themselves.

The organic rooftop garden, made possible by a $100,000 investment and heavy-duty steel beams sunk five feet below basement level – the first step in the process – is, according to Pfister, a work-in-progress.

“Because it’s so unique, there is very little information we can go on. We’re trying to create more enthusiasm among urban agriculturalists, so that we can, eventually, learn from one another.”

Accordingly, once a month, Uncommon Ground holds an “eco-mixer” sponsored by the restaurant and local green organizations to promote a community of like-minded individuals through networking and support.

It’s an uncommon concept, but one that is catching on around the nation (and particularly in places like unemployment-plagued Detroit, cash-strapped California, and North Carolina.) Of course, most of these gardens are at ground level, but rooftops are just as good – if not better, in terms of sunlight – for growing food.

“What we all need to remember is that Chicago is part of the Great Plains, one of the most fertile and productive areas in the nation, in terms of food. When we built Chicago, all we did was raise the plains.”

Customers notice the fresh-picked flavor of the vegetables and herbs immediately, especially with items like arugula, which goes limp and tasteless after a week of transit and a few days on grocer’s shelves. Tomatoes are another taste sensation, according to Pfister.

Chicago, with its roughly 4,000 green roofs, leads the nation in upward greening, and Uncommon Ground clearly leads in making that green bounty edible.

Uncommon Ground has so far won Chicago Magazine’s 2008 award as Best New Restaurant; Time Out Chicago’s 2008 award as Best New Breakfast Spot; the U.S. Green Building Council’s 2009 Enviromotion award; and the Edgewater Chamber of Commerce’s 2009 Green Business of the Year award. So, yes, I think I can safely say that Uncommon Ground is really and truly “green” in every sense of the word.

Jeanne Roberts is a freelance environmental writer who began her career on a small California newspaper. She is the author of Green Your Home.


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