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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Chicago Org. Aims to Transform Industrial Blight into Sustainable Urban Farm and Food Business Incubator

March 15, 2012 |

Chicago builder, John Edel has embarked upon a seemingly impossible mission: to convert a 93,500 sq. ft. pork processing plant into The Plant, a sustainable closed-loop food business incubator housing aquaponic farming systems, hydroponics, vertical farms, rooftop gardens, private kitchens, two breweries, a bakery, a catering company, and a five-station shared kitchen.

Oh yeah, and he plans to power the whole thing solely on food waste. “Nothing but food leaves the building. That’s the plan and the mantra,” Edel says. According to its website, The Plant will eventually divert over 10,000 tons of food waste from landfills each year to meet all of its heat and power needs.

As a general contractor with a penchant for sustainable development, Edel previously converted a burnt out industrial building in Chicago into a community of sustainable businesses. He says that he is motivated by a desire to create jobs in inner city neighborhoods by finding ways to sustainably reuse abandoned industrial buildings. “No matter how derelict they are, they are still valuable.” The Plant combines this mission with a desire to bring quality food to the inner city, specifically in an area known as a food desert, and prove that a vertical farm can be powered entirely onsite.

The Transformation of an Industrial Blight 

Turning a three-story industrial complex into a sustainable food and farming collective has proven to be a monstrous task. The 87-year-old building’s doors have been shuttered since 2007, when former occupant and pork processor Peer Food Products deemed the building too expensive to continue to keep up to USDA standards.

Much of the labor going into gutting and rehabilitating the space has come from local volunteers, some offering professional expertise, others simply providing manual labor. Edel says that he can count on volunteers coming four days week — there are always at least a few people and sometimes as many as 25. He never knows how many will show up on a given day — or what their skill set may be. For now at least, he says that the to do list is so long and varied that matching willing hands up with suitable tasks has not been an issue.

An arugula growing bed at The Plant. Photo courtesy of The Plant Chicago.

Melanie Hoekstra, The Plant’s operations manager and only other full-time employee, started out as a volunteer helping with deconstruction. Having just finished law school, she was working on a Master of Science degree in Environmental Management at Illinois Institute of Technology. She offered to help Edel write some grants before taking on additional business planning, administration, and legal work.

Over the last two years, the building has slowly begun to transform. New triple-pane, energy-efficient windows went in last fall. Deconstruction volunteers have dismantled smokehouses, knocked down walls, and opened up long, bricked-in windows. Hoekstra says that 80 percent of the building’s scrap resulting from the deconstruction project will be salvaged and reincorporated into the rehabilitation of the building. A photo stream on The Plant’s webpage provides a photo journal of deconstruction work and includes shots of bricks, pipes, and tiles, neatly piled up for later reuse.

New construction is keeping pace with deconstruction activities. Two aquaponic farms, and one hydroponic growing bed are up and running as well as some initial rooftop gardening modules. A Kambucha tea brewery has set up shop and a microbrewery is under construction. Hoekstra expects to have long-term private kitchens available for rent within the year and the shared kitchen ready in another 18 months.

Aquaponic grow bed. Photo courtesy of The Plant Chicago

When The Plant is complete, Edel and Hoekstra expect to have 32,000 sq. ft. of indoor vertical farming in addition to rooftop gardening modules and an acre of raised beds and greenhouses on the two-plus acre grounds. An additional 30,000 sq. ft. of indoor space will be devoted to food businesses. Because the building had been previously used for packaging food, the materials already in the building are food-grade. Edel plans to take advantage of that with several private tenant kitchens and a five-station, shared kitchen that small-scale chefs can rent by the hour.

A Closed-Loop Energy System

Edel has put a lot of thought into addressing the power needs for such a large undertaking. “This is a project that closes loops. We’re always looking to close energy loops—waste, heat, gases like carbon dioxide—looking for uses that are wasteful and can be combined with the inputs of another process somewhere,” Edel says. By turning the waste stream of one business into a valued input for another business, Edel hopes to create something of self-contained ecosystem.

For the microbrewery, that means that spent grain is fed into an anaerobic digester where it is added to food waste from commercial kitchens and farming operations, which are in turn converted into fertilizers that can be used to enrich soil or grow algae and duckweed to feed the fish. Waste gas produced by the anaerobic digestion will power a turbine generator that will provide light and carbon dioxide to the plants, heat and cool the building, and power the commercial kitchens. Spent barley will be fed directly to the fish, which supply ammonia and nitrites to plants throughout the building.

Diagram of The Plant's self-sustaining farming and food business operation. Courtesy of The Plant Chicago.

Business Model and Funding

According to the organization’s website, The Plant operates under a social enterprise model in which there is a non-profit and for-profit side. The non-profit entity is called Plant Chicago, NFP (it is currently in the process of applying for 501(c)(3) status). It will own and operate most of the aquaponic farm space, the shared kitchen,  conduct research, and offer educational programming. The building itself (The Plant) is owned and operated by Bubbly Dynamics, L.L.C., which is in turn owned by John Edel.

Edel says that funding for The Plant has by far been the largest impediment to the project’s progress. Hoekstra estimates that the installation of the renewable energy system will cost over $2.5 million. The state of Illinois will provide $1.5 million, but the rest will need to be secured through loans and grants.

Once The Plant is operational, Hoekstra imagines that she and Edel will move on to tackle other industrial buildings around Chicago.

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