One hundred years ago, Chicago’s sprawling stockyards teamed with activity, earning the city the nickname "hog butcher for the world." Today, John Edel is bringing a new kind of food production to the area.
To Edel, founder of a vertical farm and food business incubator called The Plant, it makes sense for one of the country’s first vertical farms to be located in a former meatpacking facility. "Chicago—and the stockyards in particular—has always been a center for food innovation, going back 150 years, and this is the logical place to take the next step forward in how we produce food," he explains.
I first met Edel, a tall and wiry man with a red beard, about four years ago while working on a story about urban farming in Chicago. At the time, Edel was still looking to acquire a building, and The Plant was little more than drawings in a sketchbook. But now those drawings are coming to life.
In July 2010, Edel acquired the former Peer Foods factory—one of Chicago’s last remaining meatpacking plants—for $525,000, which was the estimated value of the metal inside. But what he found was more than just scrap metal; because the building was a USDA meat processing plant, it contained food-grade features like floor drains, aseptic surfaces, and most importantly, heavy floor loadings that will be able to withstand the weight of fish tanks and indoor farming operations.
Earlier this month, Edel invited me to come tour the facility. The Plant is still very much a work in progress, and much of the building is still in the same condition that Peer Foods left it in when it packed up and left in 2006. But the first pieces of what promises to be a dynamic urban food factory are now in place, and it’s easy to see potential in Edel’s vast brick building.
The most striking aspect of The Plant is its scale. The hulking, three-story building stretches an entire city block, and when the renovation is complete, the more than 93,000-square-foot facility will include both indoor and outdoor farms and a variety of commercial food operations.
The Plant is expected to be a zero-energy, zero-waste facility, and Edel uses the term "closing loops" to describe the process of turning energy and waste cycles inward. The biggest piece of the loop-closing puzzle is an anaerobic digester, which is currently under construction behind the building. The enormous digester was paid for with $1.5 million in grant funds from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
Edel expects the digester to be completed by the end of the year, and when it’s up and running the device will consume 30 tons of food waste every day from The Plant and surrounding businesses. The digester will produce enough energy to meet all of The Plant’s power needs, and when paired with a combined heat and power system, it will take the facility entirely off the grid.
But the digester isn’t the only way that waste streams are being turned inward at the plant; the businesses operating within the building are also helping each other to become more efficient. "We’re seeing a fair amount of wholesale trade just down the hallway," Edel says. For example, The Plant is currently in talks with a raw juice company, and Edel hopes that the juice makers will contract one of the farms located inside to produce their vegetables, eliminating the need for transportation.
In the basement, Edel showed me the first aquaponic grow beds and fish tanks that have been installed in the building. Aquaponics is a marriage of aquaculture and hydropnics that uses fish waste to fertilize the vegetables. The symbiotic relationship between fish and plants is a microcosm of the broader and more complex closed-loop system that Edel envisions for The Plant, where waste from one activity will fuel another process. "What we’re trying to do is find ways we can close loops in materials, gasses and things like carbon-dioxide, oxygen, grains, heat," he calmly explains.
Although Edel is relatively new to urban farming and aquaponics, he does have a solid track record renovating old buildings. Prior to launching The Plant, Edel successfully rescued a 24,000-square-foot industrial building about a mile north of The Plant and transformed it into a green business incubator.
But even with that experience behind him, there are still plenty of surprises at The Plant. For example, just before my visit Edel discovered that he’s going to be able to reuse a substantial chunk of the ammonia refrigeration system that was left behind in the building, and he plans to rebuild it to make it more efficient. "Every day is a new learning experience as we dig deeper and deeper in," he says.
On the second floor, I wandered into the Peerless Bread & Jam Company, where owner Lauren Bushnell was baking sourdough loaves. Bushnell moved her business there in March, and she currently sells bread at three different farmers markets around Chicago. "Being a food business in an unfinished building is a challenge," she admitted while racing over to check the temperature on her wood-burning oven, but it’s a challenge she embraces because she believes in the overall mission of The Plant.
The Plant is currently at about one-third occupancy. Originally, a local brewer was slated to fill an almost 17,000-square-foot space in the building, but the company backed out last year. A beer brewer would be ideal for the space, because spent grain could be used to feed tilapia in the aquaponics system and also to power the anaerobic digester, and Edel is still looking to attract a local brewery to the space.
In addition to Peerless Bread, The Plant hosts another bakery and a kombucha brewery, and a nanobrewery and a cheese distributor will be moving in in the coming months. There is a long list of people who would like to move their businesses there, according to Edel, but the holdup is raising capital to renovate the spaces and get the kitchens built.
Edel predicts that as some of his tenants will ultimately outgrow the space as they scale up, and that’s a good thing. "A number of tenants here are looking to prove their concepts and then fully expect to go on to a facility that’s gigantic in comparison—but first they need to prove their concepts," he says.
The relationship between different activities at The Plant will make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. And that’s why scale matters: The building is just large enough to install expensive equipment like the anaerobic digester and the combined heat and power systems—it wouldn’t make any sense to use those machines on a building any smaller. "What’s unusual about The Plant is that we’re doing a whole lot of things that have been done before, but they’ve never been done together on one site," Edel says.
Photos: Mark Boyer