Jessica Rinks, president and founder of the Forest Park Community Garden, is turning over a new leaf. She’s also turning over 12,000 square feet of sod behind the Altenheim senior residence and creating a pesticide-free vegetable and flower garden this summer – to sell produce at the Forest Park Farmers Market.
Rinks contracted with the village to lease a 240-by-50-foot sliver of Altenheim land to grow fresh produce for the market. She’s calling her venture Purple Leaf Farms.
“I’ve done market growing before but not with a lot of space,” Rinks said. The plot will be situated west of the buildings abutting the cemetery, and probably will not even be visible from Van Buren Avenue, she said.
“I want people to know that I’m going to be offering really local, pesticide-free stuff that’s grown in Forest Park.” When she says local, she means grown 100 yards from the market itself. That guarantees it’ll be fresh. “This is a little dream of mine,” she said.
The board voted Monday to lease the land for $300 plus 7 percent of Purple Leaf’s net profits.
In an unusual vote, Mayor Anthony Calderone voted with commissioners Chris Harris and Rory Hoskins to approve the vote 3 to 2. Commissioners Mark Hosty and Tom Mannix voted against the resolution.
Both opposing commissioners said they did not want to set a precedent of leasing portions of the Altenheim land because it might interfere with its sale. Hosty said allowing one lease was, “the camel under the tent.” He warned that Illinois real estate law prevented landlords from evicting farmers until all crops were harvested.
Rinks will pay for village water to irrigate the crops. She’s required to buy insurance to cover the operation. “I’m not doing it for the money by any means,” she said. “I didn’t even break even the year I grew for market.”
Crops grown at Purple Leaf will include basil, arugula, green beans, beets, broccoli, carrots, collards, cucumbers, dill, eggplant, lettuce, spinach and other greens, onions, hot peppers, radishes, tomatoes and turnips. She’ll also be growing cut flowers such as bachelor buttons, sunflowers and zinnias – all from seed.
That means she needs to get going quickly to take advantage of the summer growing season.
“When I put in the proposal [to the village], I direct-seeded a bunch of tomatoes. When the market opens on June 22, I might only have radishes and lettuce,” she acknowledged, “but by July, I should be getting real production.” Monday she planted pepper seedlings with her dog, Maggie.
The first thing Rinks did was test the soil for contaminants. “The University Extension systems used to test it for you, but now you send samples to a place in Nebraska,” she said. Soil-testers look for petroleum residue and heavy metals like lead.
This week, she and her husband, Nick Ardinger, an administrator at University of Illinois – Chicago, hitched up rubber boots and rolled out the family roto-tiller. “My husband gets roped into all my plots,” she confessed.
She says she’ll compost with organic material, bone meal and lime. “Any compost I bring will be from vegetable waste. It doesn’t have an odor – no smelly stuff.”
Like all vendors at the Forest Park Farmers Market, Rinks will donate a portion of her produce to the Community Center Food Pantry. She already donates from the community garden. If she has excess, she’ll sell to local restaurants and by subscription, offering a weekly box of vegetables through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) arrangement.
Rinks doesn’t plan to use pesticides or even fence off the garden from rabbits and other nibbling varmints – at least not initially. “In the circle of gardeners that I know, we always say, ‘Plant some tomatoes for yourself and some for the squirrels.'” There will be a scarecrow or two.
She hopes to get interested school children over to the garden at the end of the growing season in the fall when everything is ready for harvest. “I’m envisioning a place to learn about growing and have an outdoor classroom,” she said.
Rinks has also taken a part-time job managing the Oak Park Farmers Market, so she’ll be busy.
She says she used to dream about owning a farmette in the country, skimming online real estate ads in Woodstock and other rural areas. “I wanted to farm, but I don’t want to leave Forest Park. I love it here with access to Chicago,” she said.
“So now, here it is, the Forest Park mini-farm. It’s like a dream.”