Jessica Rinks of Purple Leaf Farm, was honored as Beginning Farmer of the Year at UIC's Good Food Festival. (File photo)

essica Rinks, co-founder of the Forest Park Community Garden, received the Beginning Farmer of the Year Award on March 20 at the Good Food Festival which was held at the UIC Forum.

“Starting your own farm is not an easy pursuit,” said Tom Spaulding, executive director of Angelic Organics Learning Center, which presented the award. “These success stories encourage beginning farmers to keep going and help one another along the way.”

Rinks got into urban farming organically, if you will. When she and her husband Nick moved to Forest Park in 2007, she started gardening in her backyard. “I’m not sure when I knew that full-time farming is what I wanted to do,” she said.

The next step in her “good food” journey was the creation of the Forest Park Community Garden, which she started with Gina Thomas. She got into full-time farming in 2012 on a 10,000-square-foot plot on the Altenheim grounds which she leased from the village of Forest Park and sold her produce — summer vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, basil, squash, okra, cucumber, kale, chard and lettuce — at the short-lived Forest Park Farmers Market which was held in The Grove.

In 2013, however, when she got word that the village council would not renew her lease, she moved her operation, called Purple Leaf Farms, to a plot in Elgin leased from a church by Chris and Marcy Prchal, whom Rinks refers to as her mentors. The plot was a godsend in one way, but also a challenge because of the long drive to and from Forest Park.

Two years into farming in Elgin, Rinks got a call from Cheryl Munoz, founder of the soon-to-open Sugar Beet Coop in Oak Park, alerting her to the existence of the Farmers for Chicago Program, an urban-farming incubator collaboration between the city of Chicago and Growing Power, which, according to its website, “is a national nonprofit organization and land trust supporting people from diverse backgrounds … by helping to provide equal access to healthy, high-quality, safe and affordable food for people in all communities.”

Rinks will have a 1-acre plot in the program’s 7-acre parcel on 87th Street in Chicago right near Lake Michigan. Farmers for Chicago is a three-year program with an annual tuition of $2,500. 

“That’s a lot of money,” Rinks said, “but it’s worth it because good soil will be spread on top of a layer of clay, and all I will have to do is till and plant. Water will be provided and the area will be fenced in.”

The way the Beginning Farmer of the Year will make her money is by provided CSA (community supported agriculture) boxes each week to what she hopes will be a total of 40 clients for 15 weeks beginning in July. Her weekly CSA box will contain fresh produce from her “farmette,” along with vegetables like watermelon and corn from other urban farmers because she does not have enough room in her plot to grow them. 

Rinks laughs when asked if she is an “organic food zealot,” explaining that she doesn’t do urban farming for religious or ideological reasons. “I always saw factory farming as a problem,” she said, “but it wasn’t like I’m going to fix the situation by starting a little community farm. It’s just what I enjoy doing. I still get really excited when my seeds germinate and when I find the first ripe tomato of the season.”

She gave a shout-out to her husband Nick, without whose support her farming venture would not be possible. As of now, Rinks hasn’t made a profit from her start-up business. 

“My goal,” she said, “is to eventually gross $50,000 a year which would enable me to take home $20,000.”

 —Tom Holmes

17 replies on “Forest Parker named Beginning Farmer of the Year”