by intern Lila Wilmerding
At the beginning of the century, Michael Thompson left his career in landscaping to give conventional farming a try in Northern Illinois. Finding little appeal in corn and soybeans, but still looking to engage in agriculture, Michael returned to Chicago where he and two partners founded an urban honey co-operative in 2004. They based their business on three main tenets: they would produce healthy, delicious food; they would provide job training and mentorship for those in need of it; and they would run a self-sufficient business.
Having pulled together their business plan, the three partners got the Chicago Honey Co-op project off the ground quickly. They set up their bee hives in an urban lot, and began connecting with the Chicago community while selling honey products at local farmers markets. At one these markets, Slow Food members approached the co-op, hoping to host a community dinner at the bee farm. Though the event was a success and he believed in the Slow Food message, Michael was not completely sold on Slow Food as an organization until he heard Carlo Petrini speak on one of his book tours. Carlo’s enthusiasm and charm pulled Michael into the Slow Food web, and, a few years later, he was excited to attend the Terra Madre conference in Turin in 2008.
At this meeting, Michael connected with farmers, chefs, and activists from all over the world who share his beliefs in some form or another—they all want to reform the current food system so that it supports local economies and food traditions. In his words, Terra Madre is a “grassroots movement to support local farmers so that they can treat the land well and leave something good behind.” Upon returning from Italy, Michael wanted to spread what he learned at Terra Madre. He and the honey co-op have been involved in several local organizations, often working with youth, as a way of sharing what they know.
Specifically, they have participated in the Hull House Museum’s Rethinking Soup program. This project—through the University of Illinois—pulls together people weekly for free soup and discussion about social, environmental, and economic issues. Their topics often focus on food traditions and sustainability. Members of the co-op present a beekeeping workshop to the Hull House audience. In addition, Michael has lent his co-op expertise to a group of Chicago youth as they form their own business plan to create the community-run Dill Pickle Food Co-op.
The Chicago Honey Co-op also hosts—to increasing demand—a couple of beekeeping workshops on their farm each year. Those who attend these classes learn in detail the sustainable traditions that the co-op members practice. With these projects, among others, the Chicago Honey Co-op has made a clear impact in the community and paved the way for the next generation to continue on the path towards a more sustainable food system.