Magazine article The Christian Century

Worming In: A Venture in Urban Farming

Magazine article The Christian Century

Worming In: A Venture in Urban Farming

Article excerpt

It's morning in Minooka, Illinois, population 1,500. A dad is playing catch with his son but stops long enough to give me directions. "The gray one," he says. "That's the worm farm."

I cross the street, open the side door of a garage and step carefully around piles of black soil and bags of grain. I pass walls lined with shelves of plastic bins and join two kids who are standing on tiptoe over one bin. "Ugh," says a three-year-old, his face showing mixed dismay and fascination. "I almost touched one!"

"No way," responds the other. But even as he speaks, he pokes his finger a little closer, then jerks it back.

The kids are with a half-dozen adults from a Chicago neighborhood organization. They've driven 70 miles to learn about worm farming and about the money to be made from raising worms -- or, more precisely, from what the worms leave behind. Mark Carey, owner of this worm operation, explains that worms not only aerate the soil but also enrich it by leaving their castings, creating a fertilizer coveted by gardeners and landscapers, who will pay $1 a pound for it.

The outing has been organized by Alison Meares, a field representative for Heifer Project International. Since the 1940s HPI has helped impoverished families achieve self-reliance by providing them with food- and income-producing animals. A family receives an animal, then agrees to "pass on the gift" by sharing the animal's first offspring with another family. This chain of giving encompasses over 1 million families in 110 countries who have received llamas, rabbits, bees, cattle or goats.

In 1996 HPI determined to bring the farm and farm benefits to impoverished urban areas with the Chicago Urban Animal Initiative. Meares was hired to develop HPI agricultural projects with community organizations in Chicago and Milwaukee. Members must meet federal guidelines for impoverishment ($16,000 income for a family of four) or be earning up to 180 percent of this amount.

Soon Meares was working with the Cabrini Green Youth Garden Project, located in one of Chicago's most infamous low-income housing neighborhoods. Cabrini Green gardeners already raise vegetables, and their lettuce appears in a special Cabrini Green salad at Michael Jordan's Restaurant. Now they want to have goats and sell goat cheese. Meares has also begun advising the Nobel Neighbors in West Humboldt Park, who plan to build a $90 aquiculture structure and raise tilapia and catfish.

The visitors to the worm farm represent a third organization, a church group from the Robert Taylor Homes, another public housing project. They need an enterprise with minimal overhead and maintenance. Something like a worm farm.

The boys in the garage remain perched over the worm bin. Which worm should they touch? Which one will stop wriggling? What will it feel like to touch one? Suddenly we hear a shriek. "I touched it, mommy!"

Vermiculturalist Mike Carey describes the care and feeding of worms. The stuff resembling dog food is earthworm chow -- alfalfa, corn, soybeans. Worms will also eat cornmeal he says, and they like eggshells or unsalted peanuts, crushed.

"How many worms are we looking at?" someone asks.

"Each of those plastic storage bins holds eight pounds, or 8,000 red worms," responds Carey. "In six weeks, the amount of worms will triple; in six more weeks, there'll be ten times as many worm. And in one year 1.4 million worms."

If a group decides to consider an minimal enterprise, Meares will provide a minimum of three years of support. Self-support is the ultimate goal. With a degree in sociology, Meares is prepared to explain group dynamics and to guide members toward community development and consensus-building. She also teaches nutrition, animal husbandry, marketing and environmentally sound farming techniques.

Why are Meares and HPI intent on bringing animals to the city? In many other countries, city families raise bees or keep a cow or chickens. …

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