Going From a Three-Piece Suit to Working on the Farm
Founded in 2007, Glynwood’s apprentice program began when the organization launched the expansion of the Community
Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiative. Over the years, Glynwood has trained dozens of farmers, providing them with a solid foundation in regenerative agriculture as well as education in managerial skills.
Meet Bill Ladd-Cawthorne, a 2013 Glynwood Farm Apprentice, and learn about his path to Glynwood and what he’s been up to since his time on the farm.
How did you get into farming?
Well, pretty circuitously. I studied liberal arts in college and I believe this prepared me to be a good citizen and community member, and I think a good farmer. After college, I landed a job repairing industrial packaging machinery in Chicago. I found myself driving through a lot of neighborhoods in Chicago around the time of the financial crash and saw a lot of the factories and warehouses closing. The vast networks of empty buildings made me think about what else could be in these spaces. I thought these would be great places for growing food. They have natural light and lots of open space. I kept this idea in the back of my mind but then went to teach overseas in Russia and Vietnam. During this time, I kept coming across articles on urban ag around the US and in Chicago in particular. After reading the articles, I realized I could make a career out of it.
My wife and I got married at Glynwood in 2011 and that’s how I found out about the Apprenticeship. The farm tour as part of my wedding package planted the seed for me. I applied for the program in 2013 and was accepted. So in a sense, I went from a three piece suit to working on the farm and started working with Jarret.
What was your experience participating in Glynwood's Apprenticeship Program?
My time at Glynwood gave me great exposure to rural agriculture. Working with Jarret and my fellow apprentices was amazing. He was a great mentor. I was constantly asking him questions and he was always patient with me. Because of this and his deep knowledge of farming, I was able to absorb a huge amount of skill and knowledge over a short period of time. The visits to other Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT) farms made a big impact. Seeing how different farms do things and learning about different farming methods really multiplied the training I received at Glynwood. Visiting other farms was something I continued to do after my time on the farm. When I found my way back to urban farming and back to Chicago, I felt like everything was coming full circle.
Where did life take you after your time at Glynwood?
As an independent project at Glynwood, I worked on designing a record-keeping system that is still in use there today. I was able to leverage this project into my first job after the Apprenticeship program and worked as a farm finance coordinator, which included helping other farmers shore up their business operations. I got to visit a lot of farms and got to go to many CRAFT events in the Upper Midwest area. I was there for a few years and became the interim farmer training director. Then my wife, Moira, got a research grant to work on her dissertation in sociology, so we left the country to go to Kyrgyzstan for a year.
I was keeping an eye on job postings back in the US and saw an opening focused on urban ag at the Gary Comer Youth Center. I had to apply for it and had a phone interview with my boss while Moira and I were vacationing in a yurt on the shore of lake Issyk Kul. In late 2017, I came back and started as the Urban Ag Manager at Gary Comer and helped build the young adult training program. I’m thrilled to report that I was promoted in late 2021 to the director of urban ag and now also work with high school programs. Last year, the young people in our programs grew over 17,000 pounds of fresh, healthy produce to distribute in our community on the South Side of Chicago, as well as 400 pounds of honey from our urban apiary. We’ve also established an indoor hydroponics lab; we’re cranking out 100 heads of lettuce a week, year round! Our youth center has a culinary arts program so a lot of our food goes there. Most of our produce goes to the farmers market, pantries in the neighborhood and a few businesses in the area.
I was also recently appointed by Governor Pritzker to the Illinois Committee for Agricultural Education, and I have been elected to the Farm Service Agency’s County Committee for urban agriculture in Cook County.
I am so thankful for the training I received at Glynwood. It really prepared me to keep moving forward and dream big.
What's your favorite thing to grow?
That’s a tough question. I have a sweet tooth, so some of my favorite crops are snap peas and Hakureiturnips. But I love to grow tomatoes. There’s so much you can do with them. Plus I love trellising and pruning them.
What are your career aspirations?
There isn’t a well established career path in urban agriculture yet, so I’ve been following my nose a bit. My role at the Gary Comer Youth Center has a great combo of staying in hands-on production, youth development, and food justice work. Eventually, I may get back into the farmer training/tech support arena, perhaps by establishing an apprentice program or doing research. Who knows what the future holds!