Vertical Farming at The Plant: How a Former Meat-Packing Facility Became a Successful Farm

by Cole Mellino

There’s a heated debate among proponents of urban agriculture about whether vertical farming is truly feasible. Most people agree that it would solve many of our current agricultural problems, such as land and water use, heavy reliance on chemical inputs, fertilizer runoff and soil erosion, and carbon emissions from transportation.

However, real estate is expensive in cities. And no one has yet figured out a way to get sunlight into a skyscraper so that the plants grow evenly.

But innovators like as John Edel, owner and developer of the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, appear have found solution. Edel built a mini-vertical farm, called The Plant, in a former meat-packing facility complete with an aquaponics farm and a food business incubator that offers low rent, low energy costs, and a licensed shared kitchen.

Located in the economically distressed Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago, the Plant was relatively cheap to buy. That solved the property cost problem. As for the issue of evenly-dispersed sunlight, The Plant utilizes indoor grow lights that are operated as part of an off-grid net-zero energy system, run by an anaerobic digester and a combined heat and power system. The digester consumes food waste produced in the facility and by neighboring manufacturers, meeting the energy needs of the entire building. So not only does The Plant produce net-zero energy, but it also produces net-negative waste by turning those waste products into energy.

Here’s a diagram of The Plant’s remarkable industrial ecology:


The Aquaponics system is another innovative closed-loop system in which fish (Tilapia) produce ammonia-based waste that is filtered and broken down into nitrates. Those nitrates are used as nutrients for the hydroponic beds, thus cleaning the water and returning those nutrients to the fish. This aquaponics system solves the problems with aquaculture (too much waste) and hydroponics (needs nutrient inputs) by combining them and mimicking a natural ecosystem. The fish and vegetables are then sold to local food markets and restaurants.

Along with the aquaponics system, The Plant houses a beer brewery, a kombucha (fermented tea) brewery, a composting company, a company that creates vertical growing systems, and a mushroom farm. Waste from one business is used as food for another. For example, the spent distiller grains from the brewery will be fed to the tilapia and the solids from the tilapia waste are fed to the mushrooms.

The company is very committed to proving that its operation is not only sustainable, but profitable and replicable. The staff will soon put a business case study on their website and will also host seminars. The Plant is still very young. But it is proof that vertical farming can be a viable way to produce truly sustainable food.

— Cole Mellino is an intern with the energy team at the Center for American Progress

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6 Responses to Vertical Farming at The Plant: How a Former Meat-Packing Facility Became a Successful Farm

  1. Raul M. says:

    I think that the cleaning staff find it nicer than dirt being spread around by shoes of the soil farming style. Having cleaned dirt from other designs of work and play environments for years the hydroponics just seems to have a special charm to me.

  2. Adrian says:

    Yet one more reason why Chicago rocks sustainability. This is a great private-sector example–good to see it getting national exposure.

    But Chicago is not alone in Illinois–I just went to the Green Universities and Colleges Symposium in Normal, and learned about impressive initiatives happening throughout the state–public, public/private and private–from inner city neighborhoods’ community gardens to the new biomass facility at Eastern Illinois University.

    I’d like to see CAP and ClimateProgress run more articles like this about sustainability initiatives across the country. Encouraging news in the midst of dire predictions and confounding political struggles.

  3. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    A small bit of good news. Proof that we don’t have to go over the cliff.

    More please.

  4. J4zonian says:

    This is great! Finally some adaptations of the work of New Alchemy Institute of Cape Cod and Prince Edward Island, and the Integral Urban House in Berkeley getting some attention. As a participant in the appropriate technology movement of the 70s and 80s I’m so happy to see all the good stuff being recycled, and finally going mainstream wher it can actually change things.

  5. Adrian says:

    I totally agree–though I’m not sure this project is quite mainstream in a critical-mass sense. Here in Chicago, it’s not too well known and is still a one-of-a-kind effort; but it joins many other initiatives, and city ordinances were just changed to liberalize urban farming regs.

  6. Sam Vilain says:

    Heh, that diagram reminds me of a sign I saw at a bar – “we don’t sell beer here, we just rent it”.