The Plant Reinvents The Urban Farm

There’s something amazing quietly growing on the Southwest side of Chicago, an unprecedented urban farming initiative known as, The Plant. It was hard to decide what category to put this post in, because John Edel’s vision and progress could fit in several here on Garden Culture, but since they describe themselves as a ‘vertical farm’ we’ll go with the flow. The project has so much going on, it might make your head spin. In a good way. Where to begin?

They’re growing up and out at The Plant. Traditional organic soil-growing is producing all manner of fresh goodness in summer and fall outdoors, as you can see in the image above. But this is just one small part of what’s happening on the site of this old meatpacking plant. Inside they’ve got 93,500 square feet of space that’s growing fish, produce, mushrooms, chickens, and creating industry in the economically distressed Back of the Yards neighborhood. Beneath the roof of what was once the Peer Foods packing plant, there’s a small business incubation endeavor growing right along side aquaponics, and more. Bakeries, cheeses, jam makers, custom bike builders, a microbrewery that’s growing their own hops indoors… an incredibly diverse group of artisan industries are taking root at Bubbly Dynamics, the part of this forward thinking project.

It may sound very similar to urban gardening startups in other locales, but things are quite a bit different here. As Edel once said, everything he’s doing has been done before, but never all in one project, which is why it’s been deemed unprecedented. Instead of the standard astronomical electrical bill, this almost 2-acre indoor farm will be completely sustainable… they’re going to create their own power. Whatsmore, they didn’t go into debt getting it all rolling. Yes, they have received grants, but not to get started, initially the funding all came from John and his wife’s savings. This is really a wise move, to not start out with financial obligations, because the amount of stress this can create could really put a damper on your vision, and squeeze all the fun and sense of adventure out of the experience.

John founded this vision turned reality on a model of closing waste, resource, and energy loops. He has proven that you can have truly sustainable food production and economic development that grows and produces food inside an re-purposed industrial building. The artisan businesses that have been added helped fund building renovations, and allow him to continue building his dream without investors, loans, and relying on grants to make it happen. They’re collecting water from the roof and using it to supply water for everything growing on inside, along with many more innovations that make this probably the most sustainable, self-sufficient indoor farm yet. It’s not just a pipe dream and a bunch of calculations on paper. This is a working initiative, and it’s succeeding.

It may be slower to go about building an off-grid urban farm the way Edel has, but it’s working. Renovations on the building have cost a fraction of what other urban food growers have spent. Like other urban farms they make great use of volunteers at The Plant. There are market days, and special events held on a pretty regular basis. I could go on and on, but there’s lots more to know, and it’s best told by them. They’ve got tons of photos, videos, and info about the businesses and growing on the links below. You can also tour the entire operation if you happen to be in Chicago. It truly is an amazing place and should be an inspiration to many. It truly is an amazing place, and should be an inspiration to many, because if you go about this right you can succeed at urban farming without high priced energy bills eating away the operation’s life blood. What they’ve done is totally possible anywhere.

Yes, Virginia, you can create something amazing by the┬árepurposing, recycling, and revamping of used materials, resources, and energy. They should be totally off-grid very soon, the last supplied completion date was the end of 2014, and generating all their own biogas fuel from food waste an anaerobic digester. This puts the Plant Chicago building well beyond Net-Zero in terms of energy consumption from utility companies… so much for the claim that indoor food production uses way too much electricity. It looks like the original plan to employ 125 people when the construction┬áhas been completed might just become reality very soon.

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Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine

Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.