In the words of the late Carl Sandburg, Chicago was hailed as “the hog butcher to the world.”[i]The trend toward industrializing the meat industry, led to the construction of countless industrial complexes, and the migration of immigrant workers to the Chicago Stockyards. Since the meat industries decline and transplantation to more rural areas, the hundreds of factory workers brought to the area by industry, remained in what became the economically distressed Back of the Yards neighborhood, a residential community still living amongst retired industrial complexes. The Plant, is an unprecedented initiative in urban agriculture, and aims to serve its community through food and jobs, as well as provide a replicable model that can be reproduced in other communities.
For ten dollars, anyone can take part in a 60-minute tour of The Plant, which is led over every floor of the 100,000 sq. foot renovated meat-packing factory. Located in the Back of the Yards neighborhood of south Chicago, The Plant intends to provide its economically distressed community with locally produced food, as well as more than 125 local employment opportunities.[ii] At initial glance, the interior of the building does not distant from its original purpose as an industrial warehouse, but after exploring areas that have been more extensively reconstructed, it is not difficult to envision the plan owner John Edel has for The Plant. The part-urban farm, part-small business incubator, still under construction, plans to be fully functional by 2016, but will have most of its components completed by June 2013.[iii] The goal is to provide local produce to the neighboring community, as well a replicable business model, an incubation of small business tenants that will inhabit areas of The Plant.[iv] While The Plant will focus on providing fresh produce to its community through its role as an urban vertical farm, it also plans use half of its floor-space to house small businesses that will sell their products within The Plant, as well as feed their production waste into an anaerobic digester, providing the entire structure with sustainable energy.
After a brief moment to circle around blueprints and renderings of what The Plant plans to be, the guided tour begins with a brief description of The Plant’s history. Once the home of Peer foods, that had roasted and smoked meat since 1925, sat empty for years before Edel bought it in 2010. While The Plant still buzzes with the sounds familiar to noises of manufacturing and industrial production, those sounds are actually building the industrial complex into a sustainable food production center. John Edel who purchased the retired warehouse for $500,000, did not initially intend for it to become “The Plant”. He imagined it as an urban farm space featuring small-scale aquaponics systems, while the other majority of the building would be used for office space.[v]Fortunately, after seeing how equipped the space was with “food grade” materials, Edel imagined a space that could double as a vertical farm and a food production center.
The Plant offers tours three days a week, partly to spread word and satisfy people’s interest, but according to a sign posted within the lobby, also to create a feeding-fund for the “hungry volunteers”. On the tour, I encountered at least twenty of what I assumed to be those hungry people wandering the halls of the retired meat-packing plant, which made it clear, The Plant is an effort that has attracted an abundance of support even within this early stage. Edel and his team rely heavily on the support of volunteers; “Most of our deconstruction and re-construction of the building relies on volunteers, which means people give up their free time – time they could be spending with their families or friends – to help us reach our goal.”[vi]It is easy to see why the self-sustaining urban farm has the potential to attract so much interest; it will house dozens of small business, supplying 125 local
employment opportunities, and will boast a net-zero energy usage level.[vii]
Through the use of an anaerobic digester, essentially a tank of bacteria, The Plant will be able to use spent grains and waste from its brewery and other stages of the food production process, in order to fuel the generator that will provide the electricity, heating, and cooling for the entire building. The Combined Heating and Power (CHP) turbine generator uses methane created by the anaerobic digester, and creates electricity, as well as steam that will be channeled throughout the warehouse for heating.
The Plant is unique in the sense that it doesn’t function as a “traditional” urban farm. Most of the support that an urban farm encounters is largely community-based, which can be traced back to its efficacy within its community. While The Plant clearly has stakes in its Back of the Yards community, it does not literally “show” it. Because the vertical farm takes place within closed walls, it seems that it would be a more difficult task to foster the togetherness that an urban farm is often said to foster. Instead, it boasts innovation and futuristic models, in the hopes of spreading their idea throughout the globe and healing our broken food systems. Clearly they view this as a model that can be replicated within many similarly distressed neighborhoods all over the world, but is the solution that most urban farm supporters are looking for?
Part of what seems to be fueling the urban agriculture movement, is the tightening of connections between farmer and buyer, knowing your food. When food is being grown with indoor grow lights, sun is not the only thing that is neglected. There is a relationship of mutual benefit between a community and an urban farm centered in its community. The nature of an indoor farm is inherently exclusive, only letting people in who actively seek it out. Green space has tremendous effects for an urban environment, so to support a solution of enclosed urban farms becomes a complicated problem for the wider urban agriculture movement. There is the potential for a strain to occur between supporters of urban agriculture and support for what the Plant calls “a farm for the future”. [viii] While this is problematic, the question becomes, when an urban farm becomes just another building within an urban landscape, does it loose its social impact? The economic function of providing healthy food is not compromised, and in The Plant’s case is perhaps enhanced, but is The Plant disregarding the importance of green space and nature, when packing crops on top of each other in a retired meat factory? This is not the intention at all for The Plant; they hope that the building will function as a social space, as well as a production space. But to deny this disconnect between vertical indoor farming and the wider urban agriculture movement would be to disregard the visible success of most horizontal urban farm initiatives.
The Plant calls itself a vertical farm, described as a “farm for the future”. Not far from a mutiple-story greenhouse, this model separates itself from this traditional category through its interconnected energy system, and inclusion of at least sixteen small business tenants.[ix] This sort of futuristic notion that goes along with using an urban structure solely for food production exemplifies the level of innovation that The Plant expects to achieve. Most agricultural production within the United States occurs in rural areas, transporting crop produce hundreds, if not thousands of miles, the average being 1300 miles (Salisbury). Reusing an industrial complex in the heart of an economically distressed community, not only provides necessary food production, but solves the problem that many communities in past-industrial areas: retired, useless, industrial structures. Most designs of imagined vertical farms, involve constructing completely new structures with glass ceilings and walls. Through reutilizing an industrial warehouse, the Plant hopes to use 80% of all materials found in the building when Edel purchased it. “The idea is that nothing leaves the facility but food — period,” says Edel.[x]
Since it’s beginning in 1999, when Dick Despommier, a professor at Columbia University, posed an idea to his student about vertically stacked crops, vertical farming has taken tremendous strides toward becoming a reality within the urban agriculture movement.[xi] Looking over opinions regarding this issue since the late 90’s, it’s apparent that the vertical farm has grown from a farfetched proposition to a system several cities throughout the world are trying to develop. The PlantLab in Holland, creates “plant paradises” with the help of advanced sensors detecting the needs of each specific crop they grow.[xii] They are working with technology that tailors itself to the needs of specific crops, and can perform production with 10% of water needed in outdoor farming through a contained system that recycles evaporated water.[xiii] Sweetwater Organics in Milwaukee also used the concept of reutilizing an industrial complex, with the same goal of providing a place to teach about aquaponics and farming, all while providing its community with healthy food.[xiv]
Despommier, the PlantLab, Sweetwater Organics, and The Plant see vertical indoor farming as a solution for the future, because building farms vertically solves many of the issues surrounding contemporary industrial agriculture, as well as outdoor urban agriculture. Seasonal changes in weather and ecology will not be relevant, so farmers can expect to be growing crops all year-round. With a growing population in urban areas, not every city has the opportunity to use several acres for an urban farm, so using a multiple-story structure is a much more efficient use of space. The most essential circumstance for a vertical farm’s yield is that crops will be shielded from the elements, allowing for a controlled and predictable yielding. Unfortunately, while this also means being shield from the free and abundant resources, the sun and rain, all three of these examples boast a more efficient system than that of Mother Nature.
Distant from Despommier’s grandiose ideas of what a vertical farm should look like in order for maximum efficiency, The Plant, as well as vertical farming initiatives like Sweetwater and PlantLab are reimagining what a vertical farm will look like. Through industrial reuse, The Plant adds a level of modesty to the original Despommier vertical farm model, becoming less lavish and more feasible because of it. It is not the almost grandiose greenhouse skyscrapers that Despommier dreamt of, but practical and efficient structures solely intended for food production and all of its social and economic by-products.
What is most intriguing about this project is the amount of support that stems from a belief in this model as a solution. The Plant holds a lot of stakes in the future of not only vertical farming, but also urban farming as a whole. If this model develops successfully, and achieves its goals, it will be momentous for public support of urban agricultural initiatives. Through redeveloping an abandoned factory, that would have otherwise been demolished or left as a sore thumb in the middle of a residential community, The Plant aims to provide a new solution to the food problem and industrial agriculture.
[i] Anderson, John. “‘Hog butcher for the world’ opens shop.”Chicago Tribune , 30 January 1997, Chicago
[ii] The Plant, “The Plant.” Last modified June 02, 2012. Accessed May 25, 2012. http://www.plantchicago.com/.
[iii] Mikel, Betsy. “Chicago’s First Vertical Farm Secures $1.5 Million in Grant Funding.” Chicagoist. 21 09 2011: n. page. Web. 4 Jun. 2012. <http://chicagoist.com/2011/09/21/chicagos_first_vertical_farm_secure.php>.
[iv] The Plant.
[v] Boodhoo, Niala, writ. “Converting empty buildings: a template on Chicago’s South side?.” Changing Gears. WBEZ: WBEZ, Cleveland, 16 Nov 2011. Radio.
[vi] “Filled Up or Fed Up: John Edel.” Fed Up. 29 Jul 2011: n. page. Web. 6 Jun. 2012. <http://www.filleduporfedup.com/filled-up-or-fed-up-john-edel/>
[vii] The Plant.
[viii] The Plant.
[x] Harris, Melissa. “Farming on Water: Stackable, sustainable, in the city.” Chicago Tribune 10 Aug 2011, n. pag. Web. 4 Jun. 2012. <http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-04-10/business/ct-biz-0410-confidential-edel-20110410_1_urban-farm-indoor-farm-meatpacking-plant>.
[xi] Despommier, Dickson. “Vertical Farm.” The Vertical Farm. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Jun 2012. <http://www.verticalfarm.com/>.
[xii] Saenz, Aaron. “Dutch PlantLab Revolutionizes Farming: No Sunlight, No Windows, Less Water, Better Food.” Singularity Hub. 14 Aug 2011: n. page. Web. 6 Jun. 2012. <http://singularityhub.com/2011/08/14/dutch-plantlab-revolutionizes-farming-no-sunlight-no-windows-less-water-better-food/>.
[xiv] . “Sweet Water Organics.” Sweet Water Organics. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Jun 2012. <http://sweetwater-organic.com/>.