When entrepreneur John Edel was a kid, he loved to visit the Garfield Park Conservatory, a massive indoor plant conservatory in Chicago that was largely neglected until the mid-1990s. Edel’s fascination for indoor growing never waned. In 2010, the entrepreneur bought "The Plant"—an empty 93,500-square-foot Chicago meatpacking plant—with the intention of turning it into a net-zero waste and energy vertical farm.
"Edel was interested in ways of bringing back manufacturing jobs to the city," explains Melanie Hoekstra, director of operations at The Plant. The building is uniquely suited to food production; it contains food-grade materials (these allow for legal and safe food preparation) because of its meatpacking history. Instead of combining farming with other types of manufacturing, The Plant is sticking entirely to food—and lots of it.
So far, the plant’s tenants include a handful of bakers, a kombucha brewery, a tilapia fish farm, a mushroom garden, and three aquaponics farms (including Skyygreens). The Plant is currently on the hunt for a brewery. When everything is up and running, waste won’t be able to escape The Plant. The brewery’s spent grains will feed the fish farm, waste products from the fish will nourish the mushroom garden or feed the plants, and the plants (found in the aquaculture operations) will clean the water and send it back to the fish farm.
The net-zero energy building is also installing a combined heat and power system (set to be up and running next year), which will collect methane from The Plant’s food waste-gobbling anaerobic digester. The system will turn that methane into electricity and heat. The heat, in turn, will be converted into steam and sent to the brewery, which will use it to boil kettles.
Despite its grand ambitions and reliance on volunteers, The Plant’s construction is moving along at a fairly rapid pace. The shared kitchen space will be finished by 2014, and the outdoor gardens will come soon after that. Everything—including common areas—will be finished by 2016 or 2017.
The reaction so far from the surrounding neighborhood has been encouraging. "Folks in the immediate vicinity are generally excited at the very least because it’s not just a vacant building at the dead end of a street where lord knows what could happen," says Hoekstra. Eventually, some of those neighbors might even end up with new jobs. The Plant anticipates that its tenants will hire approximately 125 people to do everything from manning the mushroom farm to making cake in the bakeries.