A Look Inside The Plant, Chicago's Biggest Urban Farm

John Edel has transformed an old meatpacking factory into a fully sustainable vertical farm that helps support growing food businesses.

The Plant now houses a basement-level hydroponic farm, where the staff grows swiss chard, basil, arugula, and other plants and herbs, which are sold to local markets and cafes. Credit: Plant Chicago, Flickr
The Plant now houses a basement-level hydroponic farm, where the staff grows swiss chard, basil, arugula, and other plants and herbs, which are sold to local markets and cafes. Credit: Plant Chicago, Flickr

The 93,500-square foot building in Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood once housed the Peer Foods meatpacking factory. Day after day, men gathered to process slaughtered pigs and turn them into sausage, ham steaks, and other cuts for grocery stores all over the country. When Peer Foods relocated to Indiana in 2006, taking 400 jobs with it, the building sat vacant for years. No one knew what to do with it: The meatpacking industry was gone, and the building would be too expensive to fully retrofit for a new purpose.

But when John Edel, an industrial designer, bought the whole building for just $525,000 in 2010, he had a plan in mind. He would turn the desolate, rundown factory into a thriving vertical farm.

"The building was too rundown for modern manufacturing, but it's just fine for farming," he says. "Plants don't care what floor they're on."

He already knew it could be done. His company, Bubbly Dynamics, had previously purchased a derelict paint warehouse and converted it into a sustainable manufacturing plant. Today, that factory is a thriving enterprise, the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, which houses a diverse range of businesses including a tutoring program, a custom screen printing company, several bike-related businesses, and a metal artist.

Edel wanted to do the same thing with The Plant, but focused specifically around the possibilities offered by food and farming to build a fully sustainable, self-contained business enterprise.

For the last two years, he and his team have been working to bring that vision to life.

The building, renamed The Plant, now houses a basement-level hydroponic farm, where the staff grows swiss chard, basil, arugula, and other plants and herbs, which are sold to local markets and cafes. Next to that, a series of tanks house tilapia fish. The fish waste is used to provide nutrients to the plants. The plants filter out the waste, producing clean water that can then be used to refill the fish tanks. "Each solves the problem of the other," says Edel.

Upstairs, there is a communal kitchen and an office area, where tenants can rent space monthly, daily, or even hourly as needed. This arrangement allows small businesses to rent space and equipment cheaply, to share resources, and to scale up or down quickly on demand. Current long-term tenants include Pleasant House Bakery, Peerless Bread and Jams, a mushroom farmer, a kombucha tea brewer, and a vegetable gardener. The facility has the resources to support up to six kitchen tenants and five growing tenants. Edel is currently working on finding a brewery, which will produce spent grains that can be used to feed the fish on the tilapia farm.

The Plant has also installed an anaerobic digester and a combined heat and power system, which will use the building's waste to generate its own heat and electricity. The system should be fully functional by 2015, and Edel believes that the system will produce more than enough energy for the building--in fact, they'll be able to sell electricity back to the local power company.

In the remodeling process, Edel and his team were able to reuse 80 percent of the existing Peer Factory materials, including the concrete floors, brick walls, and other resources.

Even The Plant's roof has been reclaimed: Alex Poltorak, an engineer turned farmer, uses the space to grow more than 200 varieties of tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetables and herbs. Each week, crops are distributed through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) that he launched with seed funding from Kickstarter. Excess produce is often given out to local families in the surrounding neighborhood. His future plans include starting a school garden, where he can help local schoolchildren harvest and distribute their vegetables. "I'd like to help communities produce their own agriculture," he says.

The Plant is already making a difference to the community, and local officials are taking notice. "The Plant is an outstanding example of reviving a vacant building and business community in a neighborhood with a history of industry," says Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. "We are proud to have The Plant in Chicago as an example of vision, technology and innovation working together to grow the economy and jobs."

With all of the various operations housed within The Plant, "we're trying to close loops," says Edel. "I want to attach the output of one process to the input of another."

Eventually, Edel believes The Plant and its associated business will be able to provide more than 125 green jobs--many of which will go to residents of the low-income neighborhood that surrounds the factory.

"We're working with the community and preparing to run classes in organic gardening and food preparation," he says. "Ultimately, there will be job training here for truly green jobs."

"For me, this whole project comes from a desire to preserve our industrial past and make it productive again," he says.

Comments

This is the kind of stuff our governments should be spending billions to set up instead of billions to bail out oil & finance sectors.

So far, The Plant is in the planning stages.

Could you please tell me exactly which companies have committed to operating in the plant? When I toured it, Edel hadn't signed any leases with breweries yet, nor had he any long term and stable content feedstock commitments . None of the kitchen facilities were completed. The single potential leaseholder produces just 20 loaves/week for a Saturday farmers market. Where is the constant stream of feedstock coming from? Who will buy the digestate at the prices on which he bases the financial feasibility of the AC project?

I suggest you confirm that The Plant what it claims to be before you use it an a role model.

As a volunteer at the Plant, I can assure you that things are moving along. We just got a brewer, and there are two bakeries, a cheese distribution company, a commercial aquaponics company (the Plant's aquaponics project is for research and education, not commercial), kombucha brewer (that has become so successful it has expanded). The kitchen facilities are still not completed, as much of the building is still in process. The Plant was never intended to be finished in two years. It's project to be finished in 6 or 7 years. We have a small staff and we fundraise constantly to be able to do our reconstruction. The digester is in the process of being installed. Construction for that is going on right now. You need to remember this is a long-term project. And even if it has some speed bumps that have to be worked out, it is truly a vision for the future. People from all over the world are coming to tour the Plant and get ideas for their own projects. You got to have a dream, if you don't have a dream, how you going to make a dream come true?