Grants support urban farming

Projects begin in Springfield and Jacksonville

Agricultural groups in Sangamon and Morgan counties have each received $60,000 grants from the National Association of Conservation Districts to advance urban agriculture and conservation efforts in Springfield and Jacksonville. These are the first projects of this type to be funded by the association in Illinois.The grants will help to demonstrate how community-based farming can be a vital tool in soil and water conservation efforts and will promote the development of urban farming operations that provide fresh produce, pollinator gardens and natural areas.

The grant partners in Sangamon County are the Sangamon County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), the Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the Illinois Department of Agriculture and Capital City Mainstreet Farms.

The Morgan County grant partners include the Morgan County SWCD, Jacksonville Park Foundation, City of Jacksonville, and the Morgan County Board of Commissioners.

Michael Woods co-developed the Midwest Agricultural and Arts Complex in a former MacMurray College building in Jacksonville (Illinois Times, July 20, 2023). Woods coordinated the grant application and is working with the partners to create and expand urban farming operations in the two cities.

"The Soil and Water Conservation District system offers an amazing service to the larger row crop producers, and this initiative is a path forward to show how SWCDs can be a service to support urban conservation efforts as well," Woods said.

The first grant-funded urban agriculture plots in Springfield will be at the Illinois State Fairgrounds and next to the SWCD Association office at 205 W. Lawrence. Ground is being broken this month at both locations. Cover crops will be visible at the plots through the winter, and various types of produce and pollinator plants will be established in the spring of 2024.

The Springfield plots, overseen by Capital City Mainstreet Farms, will be urban food production and conservation laboratories that will showcase urban agriculture and conservation practices. Workshops, public events and field days will be held at the two plots.

The Jacksonville effort will utilize plots that were already established on vacant lots in town. The Morgan County SWCD will work with the Jacksonville Park Foundation and its urban aGROWhood Initiative to continue turning vacant lots and rights-of-way throughout the county into sustainable food production areas and pollinator plots. These projects will align with the SWCD's mission by removing invasive species and stabilizing stream banks.

The Springfield and Jacksonville urban farms will also provide fresh produce to local food banks, plus offer produce for sale to residents.

"These projects help to address food insecurity. Agriculture is our number one production industry in Illinois, yet we import over 90 percent of our food," Woods said. "Here is a way that we can start addressing climate issues by producing our food closer to home."

Each county's $60,000 grant will cover staffing costs to install conservation practices, plus seeds, irrigation, tilling, fencing, growing aids and other related costs. The Peace Corps will assist through its AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer program.

"Community-based farms can play a vital role in our urban communities, providing access to healthy, local food and sustainable green space that benefits both body and mind," said Shelly Seman, the executive director of the Sangamon County SWCD. "The NACD funding will aid the Capital City Mainstreet Farms partners place front and center these environmental, economic and social benefits, while showcasing that soil and water conservation districts are primed to provide the vital conservation technical assistance for urban farming across our region."

Jacksonville Mayor Andy Ezard is pleased that the NACD grant will help the city continue the vacant lot transformation that has already started.

"The Morgan County SWCD partnership demonstrates the thoughtful and integrated approach our community is taking to produce a local, sustainable and healthy food source," Ezard said. "The city of Jacksonville is committed to helping its residents understand the power that behavior change can have in achieving our goal to reduce food insecurity while protecting our environment."