A Rooftop Conversation with Uncommon Ground's Helen Cameron
article and photos by Michael Kuperman
“When we started, nobody was working at this level in the restaurant world, and still nobody is working at this level in the restaurant world. We have about 800 sq. ft. of organic land and we produce about 1,500 lbs. of food a year.” One thing you notice immediately after meeting Helen Cameron, co-founder of Uncommon Ground, is that she is extremely passionate about what she does.
“Taste this”, she says, placing a few green coriander seeds in my hand. “This is the cilantro plant; the seed of cilantro is called coriander. I don’t know if you know that so I’m just going to give you a little lesson. This is used as a flavoring in our Witbier, it has a very bright, floral, citrusy, cilantro flavor.”
The rooftop farm—not garden—is truly a labor of love. While Farm Director Allison Glovak and her assistant might do the majority of farming, Helen is fully immersed in the day-to-day happenings on the roof. The rooftop has become quite the local attraction; hosting children’s field trips, social hours, and tours alike.
“Tonight, I’m hosting a group that I’m actually sort of the head of; Chicago Women in Green and it’s very grass roots, there’s no money or membership fees. We just sort of have meetings all over the city, at places that are connected to women and green in some form or fashion,” Helen informs me. Members of the group will be enjoying the Curse Lifter Organic Blond Ale, a beer made by Greenstar brewmaster Martin Coad to celebrate the World Champion Chicago Cubs, and tonight celebrate open discussion between like-minded women.
The farm is truly a sight to behold; a place that anyone would love to host their social gathering at. Raised planter boxes outline the roof, with more creating rows of swiss chard, tomatoes, peppers, collard greens, and various herbs. Trellises allow each plant potential to expand as the season does. Five large solar panels can be seen towards the back of the roof, “The return on investment on that was very quick, it was about 3-3.5 years,” Helen notes.
Being in business for almost 27 years, 10 of which with the farm; Helen has gained a lot of knowledge about sustainable food systems—and that becomes very clear after only a limited time speaking with her. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons in that time span. The first five years we were full on experimenting, trying to grow all different kinds of crops, seeing which ones like being in this kind of ecosystem. It’s a little micro-climate, some do better than others,” Helen joyfully says.
The passion and appreciation for the work involved is not lost upon Helen. “If you look at this it takes a lot of work; how beautiful it is, someone who has an artistic eye, someone who really cares about giving these creatures what they need and giving them that happens through the soil. There are a lot of creatures living in there, making all this nutrition accessible to those plants and that’s a critical thing to understand,” she says.
In 2008, in an effort to make their micro-climate even stronger, Uncommon Ground added beehives to the roof. “For us we always want to make sure we have a hive on premise. When we do a lot of educating, bees [are] such a critical part of any farming system. They pollinate over half our food supply, we really—really have to support that,” Helen says.
After discussing all things urban-farming related, the topic changed to what is an all too common one these days—are you optimistic? With the current administration fully denying climate change, and taking actions that signal a step back in agricultural development, I was curious how the owner of a thriving sustainable food system felt about the future. “I am optimistic,” Helen confidently responds. “We are all a part of the resistance, what has happened in response to all this naughtiness, is it has activated a whole lot of people. It has made them aware of things maybe they weren’t aware of before, and so I do feel like there is hope. We needed that awakening, we needed that grassroots push to balance what’s happening.”
With no signs of slowing down anytime soon, and adding to her portfolio every day, Helen Cameron has become a force for change in the city of Chicago. Making history with the country’s first certified organic rooftop farm, Helen is a true pioneer in Chicago’s inspiring food climate.