Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood was once one of the most industrialized areas in America, where stockyards and factories were manned by thousands of working-class immigrants. It’s the setting of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. But today, inside a 93,500-square foot former meatpacking plant there, kale, swiss chard, tomatillos, and oregano grow in vertically stacked trays, nourished by water from a nearby tank of tilapia. There are two additional hydroponic farms growing greens, plus a brewery, bakery, a mushroom farm, an artisan cheesemaker, honeybees on the roof, and a fresh flower farm. In total, there are 12 food-producing tenants in the gigantic, industrial space.
Unlike the neighborhood’s original pork-based economy, this new microscale ecosystem is working towards conducting business without letting a single item go to waste.
The Plant, as the facility is known, is considered a “collaborative community of food producing businesses” that work together inside the former meatpacking plant to not only grow and produce food -- but to create a “closed loop” system for energy, waste, and materials. Meaning that everything is reused: spent grains from the brewery are formed into briquettes to fuel the bakery ovens, coffee grounds from the roastery inside are used to help nourish the mushroom soil. At The Plant, that closed loop system is managed by not-for-profit group Plant Chicago.
Plant Chicago staff also teach the public about this closed loop, circular economy through tours, education programs, and a year-round farmer’s market.
“It is much more than an urban farm,” Kassandra Hinrichsen, education and outreach manager for Plant Chicago says. “It’s kind of like a movement, or a weird experiment.”
It’s not just about providing fresh vegetables
The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations reports that 800 million people practice some form of urban agriculture worldwide, even though it’s illegal in several countries. The USDA doesn’t keep formal stats on urban farming in the United States, but in 2016 it funded about a dozen urban farms, the largest in the agency’s history, according to Business Insider. Even more loans and grants are expected to be given out to urban farmers in the United States this year.
But urban farming isn’t a new phenomenon for America’s cities. In the 1970s, community gardens sprang up in vacant lots in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, and San Francisco -- providing not only a place to grow fresh vegetables, but also a way for urban communities to organize. In 1993, Will Allen purchased a piece of land in Milwaukee so he could sell vegetables from his nearby farm to people in the North Side neighborhood. He then started farming food right in the city -- a project that would become Growing Power, one of the first urban farm projects in the country. In 2009, the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Greenpoint opened, becoming New York City’s first commercial rooftop farm. But in the eight years since, as more people have a desire to eat local foods within urban areas, the trend has stretched far beyond Brooklyn.
An increasing number of farms are taking on innovative projects that do much more than just provide food. Like Plant Chicago, for instance, which is charged with researching ways to reduce waste and reuse it at the farm, as well as conducting outreach with the neighboring community.
One of the largest endeavors, which is the brainchild of The Plant’s founder, John Edel, will be to use an anaerobic digester tank to heat the entire facility, rather than electricity or gas. Once it’s online, the energy system will be able to process 30 tons of food waste a day in the same way a human stomach does. It will break down the waste into liquid, biogas, and a high-nutrient solid. The solid and liquid will be sold to soil companies as a compost, while the biogas will be used to heat the building.
Plant Chicago staff and volunteers are also responsible for maintaining the aquaponics farm at The Plant -- a system where plants grow in water and receive the nutrients they would normally get from soil via waste created by fish. The plants, in turn, filter the water for the fish. This sort of farming has become increasingly popular in Chicago, with several for-profit and non-profit farms popping up around the city, in everything from warehouses to classrooms.
“In Chicago in the last couple of years, there has been a crazy bump in indoor farming, like hydroponics and aquaponics facilities,” Hinrichsen says. “Hopefully, indoor farming and those kinds of systems are becoming more accessible to folks, because the point of Plant Chicago is to be open sourced as well, and to show that you don’t necessarily have to have a bunch of money and crazy investors and a business degree to start something like this.”
What we can grow in cities, and how we use it, is changing
Elsewhere, in Chicago, another company looks to turn the city’s world-famous architecture green.
Thanks to the laughably high prices of land in some cities, urban farmers looked to city roof tops as a potential growing site for their farms early on. But, while they may be more affordable, growing edible crops on a roof comes with it’s own set of problems.
“If you’re trying to grow food in a completely foreign environment, where you don’t have nutritious substates, when you don’t have reliable water, when you have extreme temperatures -- extreme cold and extreme heat -- that’s like Mars, and that’s pretty much what it’s like to grow on a rooftop,” says Molly Meyer, the CEO and founder of Omni Ecosystems, a green roof company based in Chicago.
Photo Credit: Hannah Hoggatt Photography