Kankakee’s Phocus: a vision of urban farming

Kankakee has seen enormous amounts of change over the last decades as the world has shifted into post-industrialization. While many students at Olivet see it as out of the way or irrelevant, they miss the community’s gems woven into the very fabric of the city.

One of these newer gems filling empty spacing within Kankakee is Phocus Farm, a model micro farm run by Holly and Mark Enns. On a vacant lot across the street from their house the couple has started revitalizing the space, bringing beauty and education into their neighborhood.

“What started as a desire to grow food for our family has now become a vision. We aspire to inspire our community to learn and grow in many ways,” said Holly Enns. “Through our endeavor we hope to foster a greater sense of gratitude for healthy food, and appreciation for beauty in nature, while teaching by example and empowering others to be self sufficient.”

“Right now we simply want to be a presence in our community. We want folks who want to help to come and help and reap what they sow,” said Enns. “We see the farm as an education center so at some point we’ll engage schools to bring students here and gear it towards many different ages – We want others in the community to be inspired enough to do something for themselves.”

Even Olivet students have gotten involved. Junior Micah Forshee started working at the farm as part of a class inspired service project, and is now bringing even more students back to help where they’re needed.

“Our connection with Mark and Holly has been a special one for sure. To me it’s so fascinating how gardening can bring lots of different people from different backgrounds to this one common spot to connect,” said Forshee. “Connecting with people through growing food was really special, and seeing how special and personalized each person thought farming was.”

“I’m learning as I go – some things are trial and error, you just have to do it,” said Enns. “I believe cultivating and growing food is in our DNA.”

The project started two years ago, and since its inception is continually growing. They added a fence and entrance to add even more beauty to the nature it encompasses. Their materials are mostly salvaged and repurposed from other places in the neighborhood.

“We’re trying to create something dynamic, and enchanting that captures your imagination,” Enns said, her passion and excitement evident in her voice.

The lessons she has learned come from friends, neighbors, and experience mostly, but Gardening Without Work, a book by Ruth Stout, and Google have been essential. Enns has sought to make sure that the food being grown is healthy for the people who eat it as well as the environment. Her gardening techniques focus on water conservation and replenishing the soil, without use of unnatural fertilizers or weed killers.

“A few dandelions doesn’t offend me,” Enns remarked. “They’re edible and nutritious as well as early spring food for pollinators.” Wildcrafting is another passion Holly is pursuing, with purslane and violets being a couple of her favorite surprises in the garden.

She’s also been inspired from some urban farms popping up in Chicago with growing popularity. On crowded neighborhood blocks a single lot can be turned into a place for beekeeping or raising chickens. Even old elevated rail lines have been worked on to provide space for urban agriculture according to the Chicago Tribune.

There are more vacant lots in Kankakee, and the Enns would love to see more residents take on beautification projects to benefit the community. “It would be awesome if the city could come up with a program for including a vacant lot with a home sale as an incentive to purchase old fixer uppers and to facilitate urban homesteading.”

“Even a field of sunflowers would help the soil and beautify the community in an otherwise weedy lot,” suggested Enns. “They’ve also been found to remove harmful toxins from the soil.”

They’ve even begun building a greenhouse to extend their growing season, and even the design of the roof is focused on water collection. After installing their system of gutters and rain barrel’s last year the couple said they never had to bring more water from an outside source to sustain the farm. Mark Enns is a contractor who designed the collection system. Even hand washing is done with buckets instead of washing it with water that runs on the ground to increase conservation.

To build up soil and conserve water the family places layers of organic matter down over the soil they grow in, not tilling just continually. Layers include everything from straw and lawn clippings to neighbor’s kitchen waste, chicken manure, and coffee grounds from McDonalds. They don’t use pesticides and herbicides.

Throughout her time Enn’s has also seen the excitement of the farm grow in the children of her community who come by when they’re out playing with their friends. She’s so excited about the lessons she gets to help instill in their lives from such young age.

“Most of what we grow can be bought, in season, for relatively little money at our local grocery store,” Enns said. “When you grow food from seed, knowing the process from start to harvest, you can’t help being more thankful for the food you eat – and that’s priceless.”


– Erica Browning, Features Editor

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