Englewood Village Farms Showcase: Zanjabil Gardens

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The Englewood Village Farms is a partnership of food enterprises in Englewood. On Thursday, July 19th, we began our Englewood Village Farms Showcase with a tour of Zanjabil Gardens, located at 348 W 72nd street in the Englewood neighborhood in Chicago, IL. Zanjabil Gardens was founded by Kamal Rashid, a Chicago native who grew up in Englewood. We talked with Kamal about managing a food enterprise, urban farming, and creating sustainable agribusiness in Englewood. Our interview with Kamal, and his business partner Anthony Davis is went as follows:

Elisha: So please tell me about where we are and what your farm is all about.

Kamal: Welcome to Zanjabil Gardens. I’m Kamal Rashid. I’m a farmer. And this is Anthony Davis. There’s a wonderful mural done by TRACE, a local arts program from Hamilton Park. This is a production farm intended to be a market farm, not a garden. So we’re not really big on training kids and visits and all that stuff, we’re focused on growing lots of food for lots of people. This is mesculin mix. Each row is 30 inches wide and 100 feet long. And that’s to accommodate the machines that it takes and to also allow us to straddle and pull up weeds. I’ve always had farms that had fertile soil, so I’m pretty much an expert at weeds. And in fertile soil you get a lot of productivity including things that grow where you don’t want them to grow. Hopefully as I progress on basic things, I hope to make this a "You Pick" area for the neighbors so they can come and pick whatever they want, 24/7. This brown hunk of metal is a kiln where I make bio-chard. Zanjabil Gardens has three basic goals. Number one, to grow the healthiest, tastiest, nutrient dense vegetables. And we do that by adding up to 60 minerals to the soil. I call it vibranium! Wakanda forever. Well we know that vibranium is imaginary, but the minerals I put in the soil is just as exciting as the concept of vibranium. So it makes really nutrient dense food. We have calcium, sulfur, potassium, magnesium, manganese, cobalt, selenium, boron, all those things. Most farmers are just concerned with nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. But we put the whole spectrum, based on a study done by Dr. Albrecht in the late 1930’s. He discovered that the people from Appalachia had bad teeth and bad health because of an imbalance of calcium to magnesium. And he discovered that the people from Iowa, Nebraska, and Illinois, had good teeth and good health because they had balanced soil. Then he went on to discover 60 more minerals that are essential for plants, animals, and human beings.

As we continued to walk around, Kamal pointed out the different vegetables, his farm layout, and talked about what it was like being a farmer in Englewood.

Elisha: What is it like being in Englewood and working with the community to achieve your goals?

Kamal: I was born in Bronzeville and I was raised in Englewood, so this is home for me. And it's great. We say Englewood, we say Englewood, but Englewood is a metaphor for Black communities all over the country. And we have our issues, someone ran up and knocked down the fence...and I was fortunate. Ken Dunn loaned me some materials and we got the fence back up, which is important. And one of the main reasons why I want to have the community "You Pick Garden" is to disincentivize people from jumping the fence and stealing the vegetables. I’m a for profit. I’m a social enterprise, and I truly believe that we can do this and build successful businesses here in places like Englewood.

Elisha: What are some of the struggles that urban farmers face in the city?

Kamal: We are in the business of growing as much food as possible so we can feed people healthy food. Both sites together make about ¾ of an acre. While we keep our costs down, we are also going through the same kind of challenges that most farmers, especially urban farmers go through. That is, as a for-profit business, we can not use volunteer labor to grow our food. But we also have to make money to pay workers. We are about growing volume. This is a money world so we need money to operate. But next year this will be a part of the production farm. We’ll have production rows because there’s efficiency that you need because of the low overhead. Low overhead exist because conventional agriculture is completely dependent upon oil which is subsidized and it produces an inferior product. And it makes us think we can eat anything, anywhere, anytime, when we should be local and we should be seasonal.

Elisha: How is a social enterprise or urban farm different from a community garden?

Kamal: This is a business. Community gets involved when they buy vegetables and get better health. So as a for profit, we’re really not allowed to have volunteers. The community needs to eat better food, so I have volumes of food, so the community can eat better. Most people I have on this land I pay. The law doesn’t allow me to hire volunteers as a for-profit because it's considered unfair labor advantage to the other farmers that are for-profit and pay for their labor. It's a labor law all over the country and it's a real problem. Because farm wages are low, about $10/hr. We tend to be a little more liberal than whats good for us. Like, I think it's a real tragedy that we repealed the sugar tax, cause sugar kills people. It's more addictive than cocaine, they put it in everything, they artificially enhance the flavor. So instead of food is medicine, food is drugs. Same thing with Monosodium glutamate. It's a brain poison, it makes you think that the food taste better than it does. And we can’t afford to go for it. So we got to ease out of talking about the political aspects of sugar, or how the tax is just a scheme to get more money. The county needs more tax, and we need less sugar - we need real food.

Elisha: What is the key takeaway here? 

Kamal: I think the whole deal about community involvement and gardening and farming is a big distraction. Because, most of the gardens are abandoned over time because it's a lot of work and it's dirty work. And we really don’t make an impact. But this is what they set up for colored people. Instead of encouraging people to be entreprenuers, so a person like myself could possibly gross $200,000 or $250,000 and take home $60K-$100K and have a career, they want to make us gardeners. Which, garden is good at home, we don’t need as much public gardens, we need people to think about having a garden in your home. Because the garden is better than the farm. You can do so much more, you don’t have to worry about efficiency. We need to empower the people, not empower the government to have control over us and we still suffer. With all the control the city has over us we should all be doing great. I’m about empowering the people. Like I was saying earlier, Zanjabil is built with three goals in mind: Nutri-dense food; also to mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration. We sequester carbon by making biochar. Biochar takes 50% of the carbon and keeps it from going in the air. We actually have a negative carbon footprint cause we’re actually taking carbon out of the air and putting it in the ground. And it helps our plants grow 880% better.

We also talked with Anthony Davis, who lived in Englewood and is working with Kamal on the land. He is also an aspiring urban farmer and is launching his social enterprise, Coyote Grow Farms, in 2019. He talked about the ecological wealth of Englewood and the importance of the city and Cook County supporting Black urban farmers.

Anthony: My name is Anthony Davis. I’m working with Kamal here at Zanjabil Farms. I’m actually working this season with him doing an experimental crop with him because I’ll be starting my own urban farm 2019 or 2020. It Coyote Grow Farms. We’ll be focusing on specific vegetables including vermiculture as well. So I’ve been helping Kamal kind of manage Zanjabil, helping him with the greens and the collards. I told him that hey, in exchange for my work here, give me some land to do some experimental growing with and he’s like, "cool." This is me and this is what I do right here.

Elisha: Excellent. For you as an entrepreneur working in Englewood and the Black community, can you talk about the significance of Black people stewarding the land, preserving the land, and healing the land in this way - in Englewood?

Anthony: In Englewood, wow. Well Englewood is a very under-appreciated, under-recognized, gold mine of all kinds of wonderful things, in particular when it comes to nature. For those of us who have been here for a very long time, or most of our lives, if not all of our lives, Englewood has an ecosystem that is unmatched in any other area of the city. The one thing that’s lacking in Englewood is like a stream or a river. But regardless of that, Englewood just has so much potential to bring so much life and to help people reconnect back to nature in so many different ways. For instance, if you’ve noticed, there’s a plethora of dragonflies and butterflies and there’s a number of bees that are showing up. There are ladybugs all over. This soil is so rich and so fertile that it is bringing back all of these insects that we’ve not seen for a number of years now. To continually do this on a micro and a macro level, in terms of recharging our soil, whether that soil is at our homes or in large lots like this, we can transform Englewood and make it into a mini paradise. There is a direct connection between our mental health and being connected to nature and having nature very close to us. If we just continue to live our lives like we do with just concrete steal, we lose vital parts of our humanity. And being able to connect back to the soil will help us to connect back to spirit and connect back to each other.

Elisha: Wow. Beautiful. I could not have said it better myself. Lastly, can you talk about what you would like to see more of from urban farmers out here? And how the city should be working with us to kind of help us take our communities back in this kind of way?

Anthony: I’ll start off first with how the city can help. I think specifically, it's not just the city but also Cook County, lets make that clear. Because you have the Cook County Land Bank and you also have the city. With the city you have the $1 Lot Program, and with Cook County Land Bank you have vacant lots that you can buy for, it used to be $500 or $100 when they first started. But now it's like $4,500 or $5,000 for a lot where a home used to stand. I think for those people who have a specific plan to do something ecological with those particular lots with Cook County, since you do have to pay out a large sums of money, that you should get a discount and assistance in stewarding the land. With the city, I think they should make it known, make it much more accessible, in terms of the opportunities and benefits that people can have or create with community, for-profit urban farms or anything that helps the community to get back in touch with the land. Even creating a program in which you’re working with high schools, grade schools, where this would be part of the CPS curriculum. Where students must have 1 or 2 years working on, with, or in some capacity with an urban farm and/or in stewarding the land and making them much more habitable for various different life forms.  

The farm has many vegetables and ecological life. There was Arugula, collards, kale, onions, okra, swiss chard, Egyptian spinach, mint, basil, peppers, tomatoes, amaranth, squash, cucumbers, and so many other varieties and vegetables. They are also using buckwheat as a cover crop to add nutrients back into the soil as well.  

Kamal also talked about season extension, the value of learning how to farm in Pembroke, IL, and how he sells his produce locally. He is working to provide produce to Majani and Soul Vegan Chicago, two Black-owned vegan restaurants on the south side. In addition, Kamal supplies produce to farmers markets, including the Trinity Farmers Market on Saturdays (8am-1pm).

We truly enjoyed our visit to Zanjabil Gardens and would like to thank Kamal for showing us his farm and conducting the interview. Stay tuned for our next Englewood Village Farm Showcase near you!

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Elisha Hall