Lecture Notes: the education of Mr. Natural | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Lecture Notes: the education of Mr. Natural 

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Back in the 70s, Tom Ulick was helping demolish a warehouse in the Loop when an old man wandered up. In the 1800s, said the old man, the building had been a produce depot where he'd worked on an icing crew, packing 300 cars daily to be shipped out of the city by rail. "This whole region was once an agricultural mecca," says Ulick, now an organic farmer living near Madison, Wisconsin. "Some of the finest soil that ever existed on the planet runs from South Holland to Kenosha. Now it's all paved over, and we'll never get it back."

In the late 60s, Ulick dropped out of law school to rent a farm near Whitewater and earn a degree from "the hard-knock school of organic agriculture." After three years he took over his mother's farm in Barrington Hills, and for the next two decades he experimented with composting procedures while supporting himself as a rehabber and developer in the city. In 1993 he moved to Maui, where he kept bees and raised fruit. Then three years later some English investors expressed interest in buying his mother's farm, and though she ultimately turned them down, Ulick sold them on the idea of founding a farm devoted to sustainable agricultural practices. They looked at more than 100 different properties in Wisconsin and Illinois, searching for a 300-acre parcel that would meet their criteria (potable water, a nearby river, chemical-free land, no neighboring properties with high development potential, etc). Finally, in 1998, they found an 850-acre property 60 miles southwest of Madison that seemed perfect despite its size. "We upped our scale a bit," says Ulick.

For the first two years Ulick was essentially on his own, and times were tough. The valley flooded again and again, wiping out crops, and the farm was hit by a catastrophic hailstorm. Last year the county was declared a disaster area, and because of the unusually cold spring this year, Ulick couldn't start planting until May 1. But he's kept the farm going. Though only 130 acres are being farmed, King's Hill is still one of the largest organic farms in the midwest, its rotating vegetable crops buttressed by orchards, vineyards, beehives, and flower and herb gardens.

Last year King's Hill inaugurated a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program (with eight drop-off points in the Chicago area). Its 250-odd subscribers pay a $50 annual membership fee and then purchase whole or half bushels of food on a per-week basis (most CSAs operating in the Chicago area require a lump-sum payment).

Ulick has practical objections to the bureaucracy that would enable him to certify King's Hill as an organic farm: "We don't need to have somebody come from 500 miles away to tell us what to do." But he's passionate about organic agriculture, calling it "a way of life--a way of relating to nature and each other that extends far beyond what we use to control fertility and pests."

Ulick will speak on hunger and genetically modified organisms as part of the Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour, a traveling festival of progressive activists and artists. It stops here on Saturday, June 15, from 9:30 AM to 8:30 PM at Union Park, Ashland and Lake. The suggested donation is $15, $25 after 6 PM, and covers multiple panels and workshops on food, hunger, and farming, as well as appearances by Michael Moore, Erykah Badu, Studs Terkel, Jim Hightower, and others. For more information call 312-738-6123 or see www.rollingthundertour.org. For more on the King's Hill CSA, call 608-776-3414 or 888-752-2301, or E-mail phoenixwisc@yahoo.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.

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