Photo by Paul Natkin

Farmer Heroes | October 5, 2015

Darius Jones

On a hot, sunny late-July day, we meet Kevin Jezewski, a driving force for sustainability with SAVOR…Chicago at McCormick Place, the largest convention center in North America. A group of us are in Chicago to announce the Farm Aid concert and to do some farm visits. Kevin leads us into an elevator, across a skywalk, up a staircase, through back hallways, and finally we emerge onto a rooftop garden, five floors up. We step blinking onto the farm teeming with dragonflies, bursting with tomatoes, and being attended to by a number of interns led by the charismatic farmer Darius Jones, who we’re here to meet today.

Darius is excited to see us, to shake our hands and tell us about this place that he so clearly loves. I’ve done my research, I know Darius’ background–that he was born and raised on Chicago’s West Side. That he ended up in Cook County Jail at the age of 17, earning a 15 year sentence after pleading guilty to a felony. He was enrolled in the Vocational Rehabilitation Impact Center’s garden program in 2010, and that’s when he caught the farming bug. A 2011 article in the New York Times quoted him as saying, “Before I went to jail, I didn’t know anything about gardening or where food comes from. But this is going to be my career for sure. Making things grow, feeding people, is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Photo by Wittefini

Photo by Wittefini

It’s a captivating story, but meeting Darius, his history is not the focus. Instead it’s the present and the bright future for this young, confident, passionate person who left one life behind to cultivate a better one.

After his release, Darius enrolled in the nine-month Windy City Harvest Apprenticeship program and received his certificate in sustainable urban agriculture. He began working as the sales coordinator for Windy City Harvest, increasing sales of produce from their 11 urban farms by 100 percent for each of his two years in the role. Thanks to his passion for the produce and his knowledge about how it grows and tastes, he was promoted to the position of coordinator of the McCormick Place Rooftop Farm, which is a partnership between Windy City Harvest (a program of the Chicago Botanic Garden) and SAVOR…Chicago, the convention center’s food service provider.

As Darius gives us a tour of the 20,000 square foot farm we marvel at its location, looking over the top floor of a parking garage, with its view of downtown Chicago. We remark on the plants’ unencumbered access to bright, streaming sunlight; at the plants, in perfect rows, with drip irrigation. The tomato crop, as we speak, is being tied up to a trellising system that will keep the plants from floating away on a wind gust. As we take it in, Darius says, “Wait until the end of August. Then everything is full and fruiting–it’s beautiful.”

Photo by Paul Natkin

Photo by Paul Natkin

With his wide grin, Darius’ enthusiasm is contagious. He tells us, “Some mornings, I bike over here before the sun comes up and I look out over the city watching the sun rise and the bees.” He admits, “I get to enjoy this food too—it’s my job, I gotta know the food I’m growing tastes good!” To that end, he packs himself a lunch of bread and maybe a couple slices of pepperoni or cheese. Come lunchtime, he goes up and down the plant rows, harvesting perhaps some basil, a bit of Bibb lettuce, a hot pepper or two, and he slices up one of the juicy tomatoes hanging from his painstakingly staked tomato plants, savoring the flavor he has brought into being five floors off the ground.

“I’m a different person now. I can talk about vegetables all day. So the friends I have now are different; like me they like to work, they like good food. As long as I get to do what I enjoy, and prosper and grow, then I’m happy.”

Kevin explains that aside from what Darius eats, all the produce grown on the rooftop farm is used by SAVOR… Chicago for the catering and restaurants at McCormick Place. Kevin and Darius work together to determine what they’ll grow on the roof. Darius tracks his crops and does testing to find out what crops grow best, and what methods increase productivity. Kevin and Darius work with the chefs to determine what they need and want in their dishes, which the culinary team use to create the ultimate in local dishes for McCormick Place visitors. Two years in, they’re still perfecting the process. Kevin and Darius cite last year’s record harvest of 260 pounds of white Japanese eggplant as an example. A crop that doesn’t store well, the harvest had the chefs crying “Uncle!”

Darius keeps the laughter going as he begins the story of the Wapsipinicon Peach tomato, another learning experience. “You ever hear of it?” he asks. To a one, we shake our heads no—we can’t even pronounce it! He proceeds to wax poetically about this heirloom variety: “It looks like a peach–even has a little fuzz on it—and it tastes like no other tomato you’ve ever had. I was in love with this tomato and dreamed that we would grow bushels of it.” But it became clear that beauty and taste were not enough to secure its place on the McCormick Place roof. “It’s an indeterminate and it grew so tall we couldn’t stake it! One stormy day, I had the day off due to weather and Kevin called me, ‘You gotta get down here—your tomatoes are flying off the roof and they’re all over the streets!’”

He shakes his head, clearly still regretting that the Wapsipinicon didn’t work out. And he suddenly blurts out, “I’m sorry, I just love vegetables!” Referring a bit to his past for the first time in our conversation he explains, “I’m a different person now. I can talk about vegetables all day. So the friends I have now are different; like me they like to work, they like good food. As long as I get to do what I enjoy, and prosper and grow, then I’m happy,” he says.

Lest anyone think that Darius has a posh job nibbling good food and kicking back to watch the urbanites run the rat race below, Darius tells us the difficulties of growing on the roof. To start with, when he started at the farm two years ago, he was afraid of heights! Today he bounds up a ladder to show me the best place to take a photo on the roof, while 20,000 bees buzz nearby. “Don’t be scared of the bees,” he instructs. “They’re busy, they don’t want to bother with you.” With his endless enthusiasm, Darius explains other things I don’t know about bees: “They’re very hygienic animals; they won’t poop in the hive. That wall behind you,” he says, pointing to a grey-streaked wall, “That’s where they poop.” They also need water. “It’s 80 degrees out here, right?” he says. “It’s 100 degrees in that hive, with all those little bodies buzzing around!” They have to keep hydrated, so Darius keeps a trough filled for them.

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Photo by Wittefini

Bending down to pick up a handful of “soil,” Darius shows us what his thriving crops grow in, which is not soil so much as slate amended with compost, organic seaweed fertilizer and fish waste. The slate is left over from its original purpose, which was to sustain sedum when the roof was originally intended to be a green roof, not one that produces 8,000 pounds of food a year. Growing in shale is tricky, and the weight capacity of the roof is a constant factor in terms of how much water and compost can be added to it to make it a suitable growing material for food, but Darius is making it work. It really retains the moisture, he explains, and in the fall, the roots of existing crops are left in the ground to hold the structure of the soil and fix nitrogen in it. Every soil amendment is carried by hand up to the roof—from the compost to the water. Each of the garden beds is on a two year crop rotation, and Darius does companion planting, knowing which plants grow well with each other. The farm uses no chemical inputs, so proper crop rotation and companion plantings are critical to the plants’ health.

Meeting Darius, one wonders how this 23 year old has come through so much as positive as he is. As he directs the interns working with him, it’s clear they look up to him. They respect his experience and knowledge, and he respects the challenges they, like he, may be working to overcome. Some, like him, come from backgrounds where they’re getting back on track. Others are pursuing a new career or increasing their gardening skills. They come from across the city, the country and the world to be part of this innovative urban farmer training.

Darius’ secret, he tells us, is his love for self-help books. “You know that one, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People? I read that one every few months or so,” he says. “I have found a strong work ethic. I’m always thinking, ‘You can be better; you can be a lot better,’ and so I push myself to do that.”

At Farm Aid 30, Darius took the stage for the press event that kicked off the day with Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young, Dave Matthews, and young and old farmers, advocates and activists. He shone bright, cracking up the audience and his fellow speakers with his humor. This city kid, growing food in the concrete jungle of Chicago, embraced the rural, farmer old-timers as if he’d known them all his life. The miles and years and differences between them were obliterated, as farmer met farmer on common (fertile!) ground. And nobody was surprised when Darius made Rolling Stone‘s “15 Best Things We Saw at Farm Aid 30” article! This rockstar farmer is certainly heading for even higher heights!

See more of Darius in this video from Farm Aid photographer Paul Natkin:

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