Southside Blooms converts vacant land into flower farms and employs at-risk youth

Quilen Blackwell didn’t want to be an urban farmer or a florist. In 2011, he moved from Madison, Wisconsin, to Chicago to attend ministry school, when he began tutoring at-risk high school students in Englewood. He was so deeply scarred by the experience that it completely changed his career trajectory.

“When I was tutoring these kids, the first thing I thought was, ‘Man, I could be any of these kids.’ And the only reason I’m not is for some reason I got lucky,” Blackwell said. “I felt like if I was in their shoes and met someone like me, I would want them to do something to create opportunities for me.”

He wanted to do something beyond tutoring, something that could provide real jobs for teenagers on the South Side. In 2014, Blackwell founded the nonprofit Chicago Eco House and opened his first farm in Englewood, which took over two city blocks and employed more than 30 high school students. But he soon ran into the many hurdles of traditional urban agriculture, especially when it came to access to water and electricity as well as USDA safety guidelines related to food cultivation.

“It got us thinking: how can we do this in a way that is scalable and can become a real business and create real opportunities and jobs for our young people?” said Blackwell. “That’s when we started to do our research and realized that we didn’t necessarily need to grow food. We came across flowers, and what we really liked about the flowers is that there’s not a lot of competition in the United States, because almost 80% of the flowers are grown overseas. There’s a lot of room for us to create a real company here in Chicago.”

And with that, Southside Blooms was born as a branch of Chicago Eco House, with a mission to employ youth, alleviate poverty, and convert vacant land into community assets, all through flowers. Today, Blackwell owns four farms across the south and west sides of Chicago as well as one in Detroit. He says one of the cornerstones of his success has been his commitment to sustainability.

Photography: Mike Killion

“When most people think of sustainability, they think of a Prius or a Tesla or big solar installations in your house. I just felt like that was very exclusionary for a lot of people,” explains- he. “We wanted to show people that you don’t have to be rich to participate in sustainability and that sustainability is linked to a good and healthy economy.”

By using rainwater collected from rooftops and generating solar power from the sun, Blackwell is able to eliminate two of the most significant operating costs of running a farm, this which means more money goes towards the company’s bottom line and allows it to fairly pay its employees. salary.

Chicago Eco House and Southside Blooms work in tandem, creating a loop of education and opportunity for local youth. Through the organization’s workforce development program, teens can learn to become farmers and florists with hands-on experience on farms. From there, they can get paid gigs at Southside Blooms and put their new skills to the test in a professional environment.

Chicago Eco House
Photography: Courtesy of Chicago Eco House

Like most floral business owners, when Blackwell was planning for 2020, he bet on the business of corporate events and weddings, most of which were canceled due to COVID-19. He was able to pivot his business model to focus on delivering individual bouquets to Chicago homes. Earlier this year, Southside Blooms also launched its first-ever CSA subscription program, which guarantees participants one farm-fresh bouquet per month. The initiative sold out quickly, with over 450 people signing up this year and a growing waiting list for next year.

Blackwell already has his sights set on 2021, when he hopes to expand his business and provide his students and the community with more opportunities to connect over a shared love of flowers. He envisions events where customers can come see the farms for themselves, interact with young people and learn how the bouquets are selected and designed.

“We’re not really in the flower business, we’re in the community development business,” says Blackwell.

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