Wicker Park's Near North Montessori School
(NNMS) has an urban garden, named the Farmessori, on Wood Street. The school uses the space as an outdoor classroom where students learn not only about growing vegetables but also about botany, ecology, and food systems. And since the students bring much of the food grown back to the school to be used in the student-run Sandwich Shoppe, they also learn about microeconomies, nutrition, collaboration and much more.
This fall the garden received a few new residents: two chickens were brought in and will be keeping the Farmessori bees company and NNMS hired a new farm coordinator, Joe Phillips. Here we meet Joe and learn more about his goals for this amazing space.
Hi Joe. What are the origins of the Farmessori? Where do you want it to go?
We're quite lucky to have a farm at all. The property is actually three city lots that were donated to us by a family whose grandchildren were students at Near North Montessori School. I've met them and they are just as passionate about urban farming as we are. It's really an incredible partnership. The first couple of years entailed a lot of hard work getting the land ready for farming. Now it's a healthy and thriving ecosystem - so many birds and insects buzzing there all the time. Our honey bees, for whom we built multiple hives, love it there.
I am also working closely with Jamee Warrenfeltz, our Sandwich Shoppe Teacher, to strengthen the connection that our meals have with the Farmessori. Our goal is to empower the NNMS Jr. High students to use all of the food harvested from the gardens in the food they prepare, while at the same time guiding our decision-making process in terms of what crops are planted. We have a rare opportunity to make the "farm to table" loop direct and meaningful.
How does the Farmessori complement the lessons / academics from the classroom?
Honestly, there is no end to the possibilities with connections to the classroom. One classroom is studying the Great Depression in history, which is an excellent lens through which to view the farm. Just this morning I mentioned the concept of patterns while showing the students how to build a brick garden border, and they immediately tied it to math. By studying bees, we can touch on food security, the effects of industrialized farming, ecology, life sciences, and meteorology. The farm is a goldmine for educational points of entry.
Can the community get involved or support the Farmessori?
Absolutely. Beyond serving as a learning space, the farm also operates a CSA group (Community Supported Agriculture). Anyone can be part of it simply by emailing me.
Why chickens at the Farmessori?
Chickens are a great learning experience on so many levels. First and probably the most obvious is that they provide eggs, which will be sent directly to the school's Sandwich Shoppe to be used for meals - all prepared by the Jr. High students. Chickens also offer a myriad of science lessons in embryology, anatomy, animal behavior, symbiotic relationships... the list goes on and on. Also, they are hilarious and cute, which gives the Farmessori a certain personality.
Any other wildlife you'd like to see there?
I would love to add more chickens. And I hear ducks are awesome farm birds, both in terms of egg production and comedic value. There has even been talk of goats, which is a real possibility since it's already part of Chicago's municipal code. If people think the chickens are adorable, the goats will be a real hit.
What happens over the winter?
We keep farming! One of our goals is to finish the second greenhouse so that we have two fully functional winter growing spaces, one of which will serve as a chicken coop when the temperature drops too low. In addition, we will build cold frames that will extend the growing season for our outdoor garden beds. It would make me a happy farmer to know that our students leave Near North Montessori School confident that they can grow their own food all year round.
How'd you get into urban farming?
Over the last few years I've become interested in urban farming through the vibrant farmers market scene. While I was in graduate school I worked at a store called the Green Grocer, owned and operated by Cassie Green who is a real advocate for local producers. My role was to pick up orders from the Lincoln Park Farmers Market on Saturday mornings. There I became acquainted with many farmers, all of whom are wonderful people - creative, passionate folks. That experience really piqued my interest in the urban farming movement. I started building raised garden beds in my Ukrainian Village backyard and haven't looked back since.
Also, I suppose farming is in my genes. My great grandfather was a second generation German immigrant who farmed a few hundred acres in northwestern Oklahoma, the same area that was heavily featured in Ken Burns’ film The Dust Bowl. My grandparents went on to be cattle farmers and when I went to college, my grandma gave me a calf as a graduation present. At that time, in my early twenties, I wasn't too interested in farming so she would send me pictures of the cow as it grew. Pretty funny to get that kind of mail every once in a while.
I like the idea that I settled in Chicago, one of the most metropolitan centers in the world, to finally start my own farming career.
Thank you to the Near North Montessori School, and their Urban Farmer, Joe Phillips for sharing Farmessori with us. For more on the Farmessori, Visit it online.
Contact Joe Phillips at NNMS at firstname.lastname@example.org