Nicole Virgil: Featured Food Systems Activist
Nicole Virgil is a musician by trade who grew up in Connecticut riding trains into Manhattan to study music. "I didn't know a thing about soil or anything with a root."
She recalls the time she tried growing something from seed on the windowsill of her college dorm room. "No one ever told me you had to take it out of the egg carton," she laughs.
Fast forward to married life and motherhood in the Chicago suburbs, and you'll find Nicole is now an avid gardener who taught herself to grow food. She is also a local activist who gained widespread attention recently when she inspired Illinois legislators to pass a state law - with national implications - that protects the rights of gardeners to grow food, at home, year-round.
Nicole is the founder of Right to Garden. She lives on two-tenths of an acre in Elmhurst, IL, but perhaps the best place to connect with her is on YouTube. There she tells a years-long story that starts with a city-imposed citation forcing her to take down her backyard hoophouse and ends in a statewide legal landslide that will allow the hoophouse to stand.
The Vegetable Garden Protection Act was passed by both the IL House and Senate on May 27, 2021, and sent to Governor JB Pritzker's desk on June 23, 2021. It is only the second such state statute on the books in the United States. Florida voted its own home gardening protection statute into law in 2019.
The bill, written by Nicole and pro bono advocates at the Institute for Justice, will be used as a template for other states. Nicole sees the Illinois victory as a stepping stone for subsequent lawmakers to follow suit. "A lot of legislators don't like to be first," she notes.
"What's interesting about these bills in both states (Illinois and Florida) is that, regardless of party, it's the same opposition," she says. "It's not about party. It's about ignorance."
Nicole's unforeseen journey into the lawmaking realm started in her own backyard. She got into gardening as a homeschooling mom because, she laughs, "You can be inside with your kids too much." At the same time, she and her husband had also been watching food documentaries, educating themselves about soil degradation, ecosystems ravaged by conventional practices, and nutrient-depleted foods. There is only on solution that seemed obvious to her, she says: more people need to grow their own food.
"I thought, 'I gotten get past the egg carton thing.'"
Nicole's husband, the "quiet, engineering type," was raised in rural Indiana where his mother always had big gardens. Nicole knew he knew a lot about growing food, "but I don't want you to tell me anything about it," she remembers telling him. "I went to the library instead." This same "rugged, stubborn streak," she notes, would serve her well later in the legal battle. But back then, Nicole says, it was "just me being a jerk."
"It took me decades to evolve," she admits, "to get to the beginning of just wanting to know the things that would push me beyond the egg carton of knowledge."
Her studies eventually led her to action in 2013. "I built my first 4'x4', marine-grade, raised bed with pea gravel and (irrigation) reservoir pipe, and made my own soil, and my husband was like, um, what are you doing?" At his suggestion, they did try turning up their existing soil to plant directly, but with lots of clay, old tree roots, and "zero drainage" on their suburban lot, they determined that raised beds were the best way to go.
In 2014, they added two 4'x30' raised beds. In 2015, they added two more 4'x30' raised beds. "And that was the end of our backyard," Nicole laughs.
That year, 2015, they grew sweet corn, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, peppers, kale, collards, spinach, herbs, and radishes. They put up a lot of food to feed themselves and provided meaningful chores for their kids. As summer waned and night temperatures started to drop, Nicole knew they would lose food at the first front. So they built themselves a temporary hoophouse.
"We were using it to try to extend the season," she says, to keep the carrots and kale and spinach going. The hoophouse would keep the ground from freezing in Zone 5 and allow them to sow early lettuce in winter.
It was the best growing season they'd ever had. It was also the year their legal battle began. At the behest of a neighbor's complaint, the city eventually forced the Virgils to take down the hoophouse. (Nicole points out that no other neighbors were bothered by the hoophouse; indeed, she asked each one of them.) She notes that there are other temporary structures strewn throughout her neighborhood: trampolines, gazebos, shade cloths, party tents, and even permitted outdoor living rooms. "Frankly, it didn't occur to us that there would be a problem with this. I mean, who cares? It's our backyard!"
The struggle to win back her right to use a temporary membrane of six-millimeter plastic and PVC pipes to extend her vegetable growing season took six years. It is full of twists and turns that Nicole meticulously tracked, at first because she figured it was all just a big misunderstanding about hoophouses that could be settled with local officials and logic, and later because it wasn't.
"Both locally and at the state level ... (t)here's a cocktail of beliefs - including but not limited to - a strong attachment to Stepford living, the superficial, the aesthetic of things. In the community (where) I live, that attachment has become more than just taking pride in appearance. Their appearance is identity for some people .... Their perspective is threatened by anything that isn't uniform. It's a popular thing to say they want diversity. No, they don't. They want uniformity."
"Diversity doesn't look like Pleasantville."
Nicole, who identifies as a constitutional libertarian, points out there's a lot of condescension in her area, and throughout the United States, about people growing their own food. "The city framed it in the context of a membrane structure ordinance violation, but in the end it wasn't about that," she says. "They think that food production is low-brow."
"My alderman told me, 'You don't need to grow your own food. We [the city council] gave you Whole Foods."
Nicole propounds: "[When people] are wholly engrossed in ignorance ... when they don't know about food and food access and nutrition and the deterioration of food once you harvest it ... then they're not thinking about food one way or the other." And this, Nicole explains, is a danger to civil society itself. She wrote on these topics in op-eds during the COVID-19 quarantine months.
In the end, she points out, this law is not for Nicole Virgil. It's to protect all property owners who choose to use their land to grow food from being treated differently than those who choose to use their properties for other purposes.
"I want to see that the primary human rights of people are not invalidated. I have the right to grow food for my family," she says. "This bill will protect me no matter what the municipal government thinks."
"They won't be able to discriminate against gardening structures simply because they don't like gardening structures."
Right to Garden has benefited from the support of many, but there's more to be done, Nicole says. "They're right behind us ... they will clap their hands. But there's a lot more room for people to do the actual thing ... it would be a lot more impactful if they would grow their own food too."