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The Plant: Industrial-Scale Urban Agriculture in Chicago


My name is John Edel and I’m the Director
of Plant Chicago. I’m also the owner of Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, also known
as Bubbly Dynamics, which is in the neighborhood here also.
When I was a kid exploring the Garfield Park Conservatory on the west side of Chicago and
seeing what it looks like when you put beautiful plants in proximity with derelict industrial-looking
structures…That conservatory was a rusting, leaking mess for many years, and there’s
a certain beauty that comes from that. So I’ve always had that in the back of my head
when I’ve been looking at buildings and thinking about industrial buildings.
I’m
a big industrial preservation fan and a history buff – particularly Chicago industrial history.
And so, having a piece of the stockyards and Packing Town that’s being preserved is very
important to me from a cultural standpoint because this was the economic center of Chicago
for a long time.
This was the port of entry for immigrants from all over the world. A
lot of incredibly important things in the history of Chicago happened right here. And
so, I’ve been looking for ways to reuse derelict large industrial buildings for many
years. From my first project, which started (in) 2002 with the Sustainable Manufacturing
Center, I’ve kept in the back of my mind, you know, “What’s the next one? What can
we do with it? What are good uses for big industrial buildings?” Modern manufacturers
don’t want these facilities. So what can we do with them that makes sense?
You can
have small units full of artists. You can have small manufacturers in one. But I was
looking for ways to fill up large amounts of space, and farming makes a lot of sense,
especially when you can buy an industrial derelict building for very, very cheap that
has a tremendous amount of embodied energy in terms of the materials. These buildings
are very, very heavy duty, so they can handle the floor loadings, the fish tanks, and they
can handle the wet environment.
So, I’ve been piecing together the growing aspects
for about six years now, thinking about how to do farming. I started working with the
Illinois Institute of Technology about two-and-a-half years ago on designs, how to do this. And
then in July 2010, I closed on this building, The Plant, and we started to make it real
at that point.
The whole plant is about 93,500 square-feet. It sits on a three-acre site
in the back of the yards. The building consumes about two-thirds of an acre. In the yard,
we’ll have an anaerobic digester and combined heat and power system, along with raised beds,
hoop houses, and parking.
And then in the facility, it will be divided roughly in thirds:
one-third farm, one-third food business incubator and brewery, and one-third education, mechanicals,
common area, that kind of thing.
So, the education component will take place a little bit of
everywhere, but with a primary classroom space of 1,800 square-feet up on the second floor.
The food business incubator is divided into a 5,000 square-foot shared kitchen, which
will have four or five individual stations. And then smaller permanent kitchen units that
will be rented by one tenant or in some cases a co-op – things like bakers, tofu-makers,
a granola bar company is interested – and then the brewery is about 15,000 square-feet,
mostly on the first floor.

One of the main complaints about the concept of vertical
farming is the amount of energy that it requires to grow indoors using artificial lighting.
And so we’re looking for ways to minimize that, particularly by closing waste loops
and harvesting waste heat. Carbon dioxide from other processes being fed to the plants
internally, oxygen from the plants being fed to other processes – like Kombucha brewing,
for instance.
Ultimately, since we’re building an anaerobic digester and a combined heat
and power system, we’ll be able to hit net zero, which will pretty much wipe all of those
complaints and concerns right off the table. We’re going to be vastly more efficient
than the house next door.

Produce and fish from the farm will be distributed in a variety
of ways. Some of it will be sold to restaurants. Some will go to markets directly – farmers
markets or stores. Once we have a much larger amount of production going on, we’ll look
for wholesale distribution. For the fish we’ll use basically the same channels.
We have to
build up our production tremendously before we’re really ready to jump into those markets.
So it will be a couple of years before we’re full on raising food to sell.
Also, my hope
is that a lot of the produce will be processed inside The Plant by food producers here, whether
they’re pesto-makers or brewers or whatever – that a lot of those crops will get made
with a value-added component, made into something that’s sold here also. I’m hoping to see
a lot of crossover back-and-forth between the growing and the cooking community.
Right
now we are operating our first production grow bed. We operated at Bubbly for about
a year-and-a-half with research beds and we’ll be doing ongoing research for this project
for many, many years.
So we’re experimenting with software, hardware, chemistry, lighting,
what plants do best in what conditions – all of that kind of thing. The current bed is
the first of three similar systems, which are horizontal raft systems, a common design
for aquaponics. The next set of growing beds are going to be vertical.
We intend to fill
the entire basement with growing systems. That’s about 20,000 square-feet of growing
area down there. We’ll also be building a growing area upstairs and eventually, 32,000
square-feet will be filled with farm. So, tilapia tanks, other kinds of fish. We’ll
experiment with crustaceans and other things that we haven’t figured out yet.

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