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Every night after dinner, the Kweli family scrapes most of what’s left on their plates into a newspaper-lined bin. “Very little goes to waste in this house,” says former Chicago runway model Johari Cole-Kweli. Near the end of the week the mother of two takes the scraps out to the greenhouse to feed as many as 10,000 hungry earthworms.
For the past 13 years, the Kwelis have used earthworms to produce one of nature’s most effective composts: earthworm castings, or waste. The worms eat the scraps, and in about three months their castings are ready to spread on the 15 acres of organic farmland the Kwelis cultivate. The rest of their 45-acre farm, Iyabo Farms, in Pembroke Township, Illinois, is set aside for forestry.
For the past 15 years, organics has been one of the fastest growing segments in U.S. agriculture. And a 2002 study by The Hartman Group, a market research firm, found that half the respondents who regularly purchase organic products had incomes of less than $50,000, and that African Americans and other consumers of color purchase more organic products than whites, refuting a misconception that consumers of organic products are predominantly white and wealthy.
“People are starting to wake up to the process large conventional farmers use and know [that] the flavor in their food is gone along with the nutrients. Stuff tastes like wax,” says Cole-Kweli, alluding to conventional farmers’ premature picking, artificial colorings, and pesticides. “If we see a bug on a leaf, we pick it off with our hands,” she says. Purchased in 1992 with an initial investment of $70,000, Iyabo Farms, located 75 miles south of Chicago, specializes in growing a variety of vegetables, from collards and cucumbers to squash and black-eyed peas. Though Cole-Kweli says it’s hard to keep up with demand, she isn’t interested in expanding the farm. “We don’t want to become the antithesis of what farming is about.”
Last year, the Illinois Department of Human Services set aside $300,000 for the farmers of the Pembroke-Hopkins Park area, who are all black organic farmers, to supply fresh produce to senior centers and families in the Women, Infants, and Children program. The farmers have also received several requests to set up a farmers’ market, which they’ll do this year for the third summer in a row in the parking lot of black-owned Seaway National Bank in Chicago.
Crop sales alone don’t cover the $500 monthly mortgage on the land and the $400—$700 it costs annually to plant some 20 different vegetables and fruits. To help cover the farm’s day-to-day expenses, Sharadi Kweli, Cole-Kweli’s husband, holds down a day job as the owner of Techs Group Technologies, a three-person IT services company that grosses $150,000 a year. The company’s nonprofit arm, Multi-Talent Resource Center, which operates with a $70,000–$90,000 budget, teaches Chicago schoolchildren about organic farming. Cole-Kweli serves as executive director.
In April, the Resource Center will host the fourth annual Iyabo Farms Earth Day Celebration by inviting some 30 city kids for a two-day sleepover filled
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