Sustaining Pembroke Township from the Ground Up
December 2, 2008
 
URBANA - Pembroke Township is a community about 60 miles south of Chicago in the southeast corner of Kankakee County. A number of its residents are African-American organic farmers. Godwin Akpan has a dream to revitalize Pembroke using specialty vegetables, pastured poultry, and goats.

Akpan is the executive director of United Human Services Center (UHSC), a not-for-profit organization that has been operating within Chicago for more than three years. "UHSC caters especially to abused women and involves citizens in gardening activities," said Akpan. "In the summer of 2007, the gardens produced enough vegetables for everyone and to share. Participants learned simple and effective techniques of vegetable production in small spaces, weeding, trellising and storage of produce."

From this experience, UHSC recognized the need for education to more people in a larger area, and purchased a 25-acre plot in Pembroke Township. "The people of Pembroke are organic farmers, and they will learn some simple techniques such as trellising for higher productivity from this project," said James Theuri, University of Illinois Extension educator at the Kankakee County Unit. "Godwin Akpan will also be an inspirer of younger people to get into farming. A lot of Pembroke people are aging and do not have young farmer entrepreneurs to take on the land after them."

Akpan said that through organic farming, he hopes to help create a community that will improve the general lives of youths and adults in Pembroke Township economically, socially and educationally. Akpan received a grant from North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NCR SARE) to jump start his dream.

The interest in organically grown vegetables, herbs, and livestock is growing in Chicago and surrounding cities. And, the Muslim and Hispanic populations are a particularly strong niche market for goat meat.

With that in mind, Akpan and UHSC intend to develop a mixed-farming operation consisting of livestock and vegetables on a three to five acre model farm within the 25-acre farm. The goal is to have a self-sustaining system in three years.

His plan is to start small and trust nature. "We'll start with four does and a buck," said Akpan. "Assuming that they are good mothers, they will each produce twins. Half of those are expected to be females, ready to breed in a year."

By the end of the second year, Akpan expects there to be approximately 20 goats in the herd. The males will be sold for meat — the income re-invested in the farm.

Vegetables to be planted in raised beds will include peppers, tomatoes, garlic, greens (turnips, mustard, collard, kale, and Swiss chard), okra, sweet potatoes, peanuts, and various herbs. Plans also include planting blackberries, blueberries, peach and apple trees.

A major market will be the farmers' market in Kankakee. Vendors at the farmers' market can buy from the farm and eliminate transportation costs.

Structures on the small farm will be kept to a minimum. A water source will be established by sinking a borehole. Because of the presence of predators, dog- and coyote-proof fencing will be erected on two of the acres. A simple shed for goat refuge during adverse weather and pasture poultry hoops will be constructed. Additionally, a simple set-up for vegetable washing and packing will be located within the farm.

Although it will be necessary to purchase some equipment to work the farm, the bigger machinery will be leased as needed.

In order to promote educational opportunities, UHSC will work closely with University of Illinois Extension to organize a twilight tour of the garden and a morning farm tour during mid-season crop production.

UHSC has already initiated a 4-H Youth program for the area, providing each child a small plot and the opportunity to plant a vegetable of their own choice.

For more information, as well a downloadable publication entitled, "Reaping the Rewards of Our SARE Investment," visit http://web.extension.uiuc.edu/smallfarm/oursare.cfm. The publication includes descriptions of the projects funded by NCR SARE from 1992 through 2008.

-30-