By Kate Blankinship
Two cousins, one bus ride, and a love for hobbies. This is all it took for Nick Lyon and John Havlik to come up with the idea that developed into Phoenix Farms, one of UChicago’s newest Recognized Student Organizations (RSO).
Phoenix Farms is UChicago’s premier urban agriculture organization. The RSO unites gardening with beekeeping by growing food crops in Jackson Park and maintaining the highest beehives on Chicago’s Southside. Third-year Havlik, who has loved gardening since fifth grade, focuses on the garden. Lyon, a graduate of the College and a current Pritzker student, is in charge of the bees. Together they educate students and community members on the value of gardening and the importance of beekeeping and how to properly maintain a hive.
“I had always been interested in beekeeping,” Lyon said. “I thought it was a fun, quirky hobby, and I liked honey. And I knew John was interested in gardening. We thought we both have these hobbies, why not bring it to UChicago and get other people involved, too.”
Lyon and Havlik spent the next few months implementing their ideas, but not without challenges. The first challenges were ones that every group on campus faces—funding and member recruiting. After receiving money from the Uncommon Fund to cover start-up costs, they were able to focus on other logistics.
Lyon and Havlik also had to find locations for the garden and beehives. Finding a location for the garden was easier—they leased a plot in Jackson Park—but finding somewhere to keep the beehives was more difficult. They not only had to find a place to put a beehive, but they also had to convince building managers that they could keep the bees contained to their allotted space. Commercial Real Estate Operations suggested the roof of Harper Court, where Phoenix Farms’ three hives live today. When populated, there are more than 150,000 bees.
In addition to finding a location, Lyon and Havlik had multiple meetings with the Office of Risk Management to talk about safety precautions they would take, like wearing bee suits. While some beekeepers go out in shorts and T-shirts, Lyon said, “not in our group. We’re not quite that bold.”
“Oh I definitely like the gear,” Havlik followed up. “I think it’s good to minimize the risk of stings, especially because Nick is mildly allergic to bees.”
While they always have an EpiPen on hand, Lyon hopes that as he gets more stings, the lesser his reaction will become.
“You get used to [the stings] after a while,” Lyon said. “It’s a part of beekeeping.”
One growing season and a year later, Lyon and Havlik are looking to the future.
“Five gallons of honey have just been sitting around in my apartment,” Lyon said. “The goal is to get the honey out there to all of the students.”
Havlik and Lyon are hoping to partner with campus and local coffee shops to sell the honey, and they are even working with a Booth student to expand their reach to restaurants on 53rd Street.
Phoenix Farms is unique in that it is involving students from all parts of the University, including the College, Booth, Pritzker, and other graduate students. A graduate student studying chemistry, for instance, is going to look at the composition of the honey to help explain why the honey Phoenix Farms harvests is clearer than other honeys.
In addition to their goals of furthering the production and study of honey, they also want to expand what they grow each season. Last year, after researching possible crops—which Havlik said is his favorite part of each harvesting season—students successfully grew rainbow corn, sunchokes, beets, strawberries, walking onions, tomatoes, and summer squash. They ate the food, but this year, the RSO hopes to donate their harvest through the help of future partnerships.
A long-term goal stemming from these partnerships is the development of a food forest. Havlik explained how, in the years to come, they are looking to grow more exotic native food trees and plants, like the Pawpaw tree, hazelnut tree, and raspberry bushes.
For now, they are going to focus on this upcoming bee season and planting their garden, which they are moving from Jackson Park to a new spot on campus.
Havlik and Lyon are always looking for more people to join Phoenix Farms. Unlike other RSOs, Phoenix Farms is summer focused, allowing more flexibility with students’ time.
Even if students aren’t interested in committing to gardening or beekeeping, Lyon said that he “like[s] just bringing people up there to see the hives and show them off.”
“Beekeeping is really a fun hobby, and that’s what we want to teach people,” Lyon said. “Everyone’s scared of bees, but [beekeeping is] really not that hard to do. And especially with the decline of the bee population, it’s so important that we have people who are knowledgeable about bees and know how to take care of them.”
Phoenix Farms is a finalist in Zipcar's Students with Drive contest. See more and vote for the RSO here.