On the outskirts of the Illinois Tech quad, sandwiched between the Alpha Sigma Alpha and the Triangle houses, lies a large patch of haunted land surrounded by broken wooden fences and piles of rocks and dirt. Inside you will find an abandoned but locked workshed filled with tools, chairs, signs, and a body pillow, plus debris, pipes and leftover containers and supplies, and many, many weeds and dead plants. Among the tipped-over wheelbarrows and the compost bins filled with water, waste, and leaves stands tall the skeleton of the greenhouse that used to be there. And on a faded and chipped glass sign with white printed letters inside the farm, you’ll find that this place was once called UFarmIIT: one of Illinois Tech’s landmarks and once the face of the IPRO program.
It wasn’t always like this. UFarmIIT was a student-led community garden and urban farming project that ran for several years at Illinois Tech. Both students and the Wanger Institute For Sustainable Energy Research (WISER) were in charge of the farm. You can find a brief history of the UFarm on a large sign next to the entrance to the site.
From the brief research we did, the UFarmIIT project was established in (or possibly before) 2012, designed to bring urban farming to the Illinois Tech campus. Construction of the gardening site and greenhouse began in 2012, and in that same year, the UFarm saw the fruits of success (pun intended) as the first crops to grow in that area became available to Illinois Tech students. In 2013, the greenhouse construction was completed. The year after, in 2014, the construction of a wooden shed began, where necessary tools, batteries, and supplies were stored.
In 2016, major developments were made to the UFarm. A solar-powered irrigation system was added where rainwater (which would provide the farm 75 percent of the water it needs) would be directed by a system of gutters on the greenhouse. From there it would be collected and stored into onsite containers to be fed into the irrigation system. Solar panels on the roof would collect power and store batteries located in the work shed. The power is then sent through a transformer before feeding into wires leading to the systems that need it. Water is delivered from the water tanks to the planter boxes through a water pump and a system of underground pipes. If dry soil was detected by moisture sensors, which were placed in the planters, an automated system would open up valves in the pipes from which the water inside would spray on the plants, watering them. To conserve water and aid the soil, a method of sheet mulching was implemented, which involved layering cardboard, compost, and mulch.
In 2017 and 2018, IPRO teams focused on incorporating renewable energy sources in their design for a community garden space. Each year, the UFarmIIT IPRO team consisted of three groups: automation, construction/design, and research/community outreach. The UFarmIIT IPRO project was supported and led by WISER Director Dr. Hamid Arastoopour and Assistant Director and Program Outreach Manager Margaret Murphy.
Some time after 2018, the UFarm-focused IPRO courses were discontinued after internal conflicts between the IPRO program and some of the faculty involved. The management of the UFarm site was handed over to a student organization by the name of Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW). ESW has had a long history at Illinois Tech. On the Wikipedia page listing the student organizations at Illinois Tech, ESW is listed among them. One of the links on the page leads to an archived ESW forum page where the latest activity is from 2012. Obviously this is not their current site now, but we are mentioning it here to show that ESW’s been at Illinois Tech for many years.
Unfortunately, it appears that ESW has not been active at the moment. They do not have an organization page on Presence, and the last activity on their Facebook page is from March 2019. Thus, over the past two years or so, the space has fallen into disrepair. The greenhouse covering was taken down and the irrigation system has been disabled. Weeds have taken over any crops left in the UFarm, little of which are still thriving.
This semester, however, the Student Government Association (SGA) has been working to restore the UFarm. SGA and the IPRO department have collaborated to bring back the UFarm as an IPRO course in spring of 2021. This course will focus on restoring the U-Farm with a greater emphasis on the importance of incorporating the larger Bronzeville community in the project. It will largely be guided by student interests. The course is available to register right now as IPRO 497-222: Venture and is being led by current IPRO director Jeremy Alexis. The course meeting is listed as Fridays from 6:45-9:05 p.m. - however, this is simply a placeholder time and will be adjusted to fit the schedules of those who register.
Additionally, several SGA members are planning a visit to the UFarm on Friday, November 20 at 4:30 p.m. to help clean up the debris, weeds, and other junk that needs to be removed from the site. If you are interested in volunteering, be sure to contact any of the people listed at the end of this article.
Personally speaking, very high hopes come from us for the UFarm. The UFarm is a prime example of student innovation and project completion at Illinois Tech, and was even used as a selling point. In old Illinois Tech recruitment and advertising material of years past, you’ll find the UFarm project being one of this school’s many selling points. We strongly recommend joining the UFarm IPRO next semester as it is a wonderful opportunity to get involved with the Bronzeville community while also providing an excellent academic opportunity to learn about environment, engineering, research, and more. And yes, this entire article is just a marketing ploy to get more people to know about and join the UFarmIIT IPRO course. We are not sorry. Please join us and help us make the UFarm great again.
For more information, feel free to visit ufarmiit.org (where we got most of our info from) or contact SGA Vice President of Student Life Jeannina Villalobos at [email protected]. You can also reach out to the SGA members involved: Jason Scott ([email protected]), Ursula Hersh ([email protected]), and Sameer Sheikh ([email protected]).