Thursday, July 26, 2012

Down on the farm, part two

A few days ago I wrote that the idea of the farmer as the last bastion of traditional American values such as iindividualism, freedom, and independence is a myth. I said most farmers are beholden to the vagaries of the market, government subsidies and big agribusiness. And who could blame them, even with the help of those outside forces, farming is a rough business; farmers just want to make a buck like the rest of us. On the other hand, there are farmers out there who buck the trend and do in fact live up to those traditional American values, even though they themselves are anything but traditional.

It just so happens that I'm acquainted with one of them, his name is Ken Dunn. One of the nontraditional things about Ken is he's a farmer who lives and works in the middle of a big city, right here in Chicago. Like most people in the profession, Ken grew up on a farm. It was there he discovered the problems of standard farming practices and the spiraling cycle of chemical dependence it created.

After college and a stint in the Peace Corps in Brazil, Ken landed in Chicago in the mid sixties to pursue his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Chicago. It was in this city with all its vacant lots and untapped human potential going to waste on the streets where he had his "aha" moment. His first employees were two derelicts in the neighborhood who everyday would buy a bottle of hooch, drink it on the street then toss the empty in the vacant lot next door to the liquor store. He approached them and asked if they'd be willing to help him collect all the trash in the lot. He'd then sell the haul to a recycler and split the profits with the two. Thus began his life's work promoting sustainability in all its various ramifications, including, you guessed it, turning vacant city lots into vegetable farms, some of whom sell their produce to a handful of the city's most distinguished restaurants. Others provide fruit and vegetables to residents of neighborhoods in the midst of Chicago's highly publicized food deserts.

Ken's organization known simply as Resource Center, has been devoted to in their words: "the economic and educational revitalization of city neighborhoods through recycling, urban gardening, composting, and other programs that reclaim and reuse resources."

Here is a link to their web site.

Ken's the total package, a man who lives and breathes his work every hour of every day. Visiting his two story Hyde Park graystone, I learned that for a fact a few years ago when he told me that in the winter, he's typically up once or twice a night stoking his wood burning stove, fed by recycled oak from old shipping pallets.

From a Chicago Magazine article written by David Zivan in 2004, here in part is Ken Dunn's fascinating story. Its title couldn't be more appropriate: "Somebody Give This Guy a Genius Grant."

I have no doubt that someday, somebody will.

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