By Morgan McFall-Johnsen
Amid the brick apartments and quaint houses with manicured lawns lining Evanston’s Darrow Avenue, an out of place one-floor house squats amid a disruptive mass of vegetation.
In the front yard, metal hoops support tall flowering plants. Rows of swiss chard sit beside clumps of an edible bell-shaped orange flower with red streaks. A beanstalk climbs up the porch lattice. Wildflowers poke out of the chain-link fence and peer down the crumbled alleyway. In the backyard, a wooden children’s jungle gym sits above a homemade chicken coop, complete with six clean, plump hens, resting in the shade of a small tree growing through the recycled chicken wire.
This is Endless Greens, a small urban farm. For Gareth Proctor, owner, founder, and farmer, this is also his home. In 2010, he built a greenhouse in his backyard, rigged his own water collection, heating and irrigation systems, and established his own business.
“The concept behind Endless Greens is if we were to take this property and drop it in the middle of nowhere, the operation would not change a bit,” said Proctor. “So what we are aiming for is the greenest, most sustainable farm. Period.”
Joshua Zuckerman, co-owner and operations manager, described it as functioning off-grid, “zombie-apocalypse-style.”
In the words of Zuckerman, they’re trying to become a “sustainability development firm… helping people make that transition into a sustainable future.”
From Backyard to Farmyard
Sustainability practices around the farm include composting to make fertilizer, seed saving and using local and recycled building materials. ll they need is solar panels, and all their sustainability goals will be complete, Proctor said.
The biggest feature, however, is the greenhouse. Proctor says that greenhouses like his are quite rare, because his is a passive solar greenhouse, meaning that it’s made for the harsh Evanston winter. The plastic side that lets in light faces the winter sun, and reflective and absorptive surfaces inside provide insulation. The plastic is an extremely efficient heat-trapper; Proctor says that on particularly sunny winter days, the greenhouse’s internal temperature can reach up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
The greenhouse also heats the farm’s water, which Proctor says is 100 percent rainwater, collected in plastic barrels surrounding the house. On the farm, he uses drip irrigation, which he says saves 80 percent of what he would use if he employed industrial techniques like sprinkler systems.
“When we start talking about green sustainability, it’s not just doing the garden. It’s everything in the entire house,” Proctor explained.
But the entire house is just the beginning. They’ve already been pretty successful in spreading their ideas to the rest of Evanston. Shortly after Proctor started his farm, the Evanston zoning board asked him for advice on some new ordinances they were trying to pass. Bringing his expertise in biology, botany and building, Proctor helped to pass ordinances permitting urban farming, aquaponics, rooftop urban farming, rooftop gardening and several other sustainable farming practices in Evanston.
The Rocky Road of Agriculture
Elsewhere in Evanston, at Northwestern University, in a little corner of a lawn overlooking the lake, greenery shoots from wooden planting boxes, vines crawl up supporting stands and potted flowers hang from a gazebo-like structure. Amid eggplants and peppers, Mackenzie Turner, a Northwestern junior and co-president of student-run vegetable garden Wild Roots, pulls carrots from the soil.
“The food that’s served in the dining halls is super processed most of the time and came a far way to get there,” Turner said. “If a huge campus like Northwestern… [could] commit to being better about eating more real food and sustainable locally grown produce, it would definitely be a huge step forward.”
Turner described trouble with getting students to be enthusiastic about Wild Roots’ mission and lamented the high prices usually associated with small-scale, locally-grown food. To make sustainable farming more accessible throughout the country, Turner suggests “making it easier for it to be a competitive market with other foods.”
Similar to the obstacles faced by Northwestern’s Wild Roots, Proctor believes his greatest hindrance is a lack of enthusiastic public support and dedication to sustainability. “A lot of people talk about this stuff, but they don’t actually practice it. They don’t know how to practice it,” Proctor said. He takes his business to the Evanston Farmer’s Market every Saturday and, according to him, only four of the 20 or so farmers there are organic.
“The ordinances are great, but we would still love to work with the city to help them do more,” Zuckerman said.
But they don’t plan to stop with the city of Evanston. Proctor feels that the Midwest is the best place to start spreading his ideas for sustainable agriculture.
“We’re the breadbasket of the world right here. We have the most productive farmland right here in the entire world according to NASA satellite imagery,” he said.
Because of that, he feels that the Midwest is the best place to start spreading his ideas for sustainable agriculture.
Many people may view those ideas as a bit radical. “Compared to the past, we now have what you might think of as prescriptions that are far better than ever before in terms of producing animals that are going to be healthy,” said Gary Steinhardt, a professor of agronomy and extension specialist at Purdue University, referring to hormones, other modern agricultural practices, technological advances and what he refers to as “improved genetics.” He argues that modern practices are indisposable to feeding the population. “There are situations where you really have to use [them] and you’d be crazy not to,” he said.
Proctor prefers to shun industrial agricultural practices, saying that his methods are better and are nothing new or radical at all. “Some of these techniques go way, way back,” he said. “People say ‘you’re cutting edge’ and I’m like ‘no, actually, I’m just turning the clock back.’”
But Steinhardt remembers farming before pesticides. Before herbicides. Before GMOs. They lost a lot of crops. His grandfather had bees, an orchard, and multiple other crops hoping that just one would come through each year. His parents and grandparents worked day in and day out, slaving over crops that they knew would mostly fail. Today, farm chemicals guarantee a result.
While Steinhardt agrees that agricultural chemical usage needs to be reduced, he doesn’t believe it’s realistic to apply Proctor’s model to a larger agricultural scale. “Sometimes the obvious solution is not always the correct one,” he said.
Give Them People What They Want
Proctor and Zuckerman have no qualms about competing in the market. Endless Greens is for-profit, and when they discovered they couldn’t make enough money selling vegetables, they started selling installations and maintenance.
Demand for companies like Endless Greens is only increasing. A 2012 Nielsen report found that 66 percent of socially conscious consumers said companies should support environmental sustainability. “Socially conscious,” in this case, means they’re willing to spend more money on companies that support their causes. These consumers made up 46 percent of total consumers around the world.
As people increasingly push for sustainability, set-ups like Endless Greens seem increasingly appealing. In fact, urban farms are popping up all across Chicago. Urban agricultural organizations like Growing Home, Growing Power and the Peterson Garden Project are taking advantage of a growing demand.
Proctor and Zuckerman are determined to come up with innovative ways to return to a simpler lifestyle and become more self-reliant. Even as they walked through the greenhouse, pointing out how everything worked, they were coming up with new ideas. Zuckerman proposed a system in which they harnessed the gas byproduct from their compost and use it to create energy for the greenhouse, pointing to where he could place a tank and rig piping. Proctor listened, nodded, offered suggestions and encouraged what he seemed to think was a fine idea.