In 1915, a professor of geology at the University of Southern California by the name of Gilbert Ellis Bailey published a book that had the potential to revolutionize agriculture. In the sixty-nine-page treatise, Bailey outlined what he saw as a more efficient way to cultivate crops: use explosives to increase land mass vertically as opposed to horizontally. Inexpensive explosives, wrote Bailey, “enable the farmer to farm deeper, to go down to increase his acreage, and to secure larger crops, thereby offering more surface area.”
Bailey’s book bore the same name as his idea: “Vertical Farming.”
In the coming decades, a handful of people, from Buckminster Fuller in the 1930s to a Malaysian architect named Ken Yeang in the 1990s, took the idea in a decidedly modern direction. Why not, they believed, integrate plants into a literally vertical space—namely, buildings? Growing plants in open-air buildings, argued Yeang, would serve communal nutritional and climate control needs.
Also in the 1990s, Dickson Despommier, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University, went a step further. Not only would growing plants in buildings help feed a sharply increasing human population that won’t have enough arable land, he argued, weather would no longer pose a problem to growth; spoilage would become less of a concern, since food would be grown locally; empty lots and buildings would be put to good use; urban jobs would be created; and when abandoned, damaged ecosystems would have a chance to heal themselves.
Enter the man hoping to chart the next step in vertical farming—and he’s Chicago’s to claim. In a scruffy patch of the Back of the Yards neighborhood, forty-two-year-old John Edel is spearheading the creation of an industrial system that he hopes will not just grow plants in buildings, but also show the world that by using the waste of one food-production process as fuel for another, you can create a multipurpose manufacturing ecosystem—with zero emissions.
And it looks like he’ll do it, too.
To understand how Edel got here, you have to appreciate his background. A native of West Rogers Park, Edel grew up thinking, as it so happened, about growing plants in buildings. As a kid, he would walk around the Garfield Park Conservatory, where he’d spot rusting steel, leaking steam pipes and chipped paint. The sights saddened him, but they set him to wondering, too.
In 1987, Edel began studying industrial design at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He remained there for ten years, acquiring credits in art history and anthropology on his way to a BFA and then MFA. As part of his master’s thesis, he used virtual-reality technology to help design wheelchair-accessibility features for the CTA’s Green Line. After leaving UIC, he continued his work at a company called VictorMaxx Technologies, doing video-game art direction. A year-and-a-half after that, he moved to another company, Post Effects, where he used VR software to design sets for video broadcasts.
In 2002, Edel made a bold career move. Seeing an opportunity to channel his love for the city’s industrial history and aesthetics—indeed, a desire to preserve them—he purchased a 25,000-square-foot former paint warehouse at 1048 West 37th Street. In the course of about five years, he turned it from a burnt-out shell of a building into a space fully occupied by local, socially conscious, energy-efficient small businesses. The building, called the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, remained fully occupied throughout the economic recession. Today, five prospective tenants sit on a waiting list.
Around 2005, Edel began thinking about growing food in buildings. Two years later, he found himself seriously looking for an old building to put to that use. In 2010, he found an eighty-five-year-old former meatpacking plant at 1400 West 46th Street whose owners, Mariah Foods, expected to see it stripped for parts and torn down. Thanks to a family loan, Edel bought the title for $525,000.
With help from Blake Davis, an adjunct professor of sustainability and urban agriculture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, along with Blake’s students, other IIT faculty, engineers, volunteers and still others who offered their thoughts, Edel came up with a plan for a kind of business cooperative the likes of which Chicago had never seen. He would create a magnificent, self-contained production system that would house multiple small businesses, serve as a source of locally grown food in a so-called “food desert,” and bring jobs to an economically depressed neighborhood—all with net-zero waste.
Here’s how the system would work: Companies would rent out space in the building to grow plants, raise fish, brew beer or kombucha, or use commercial kitchen space. The waste from one process would serve as fuel for another. For example, oxygen emitted by the plants would feed the kombucha, and the carbon dioxide put out by the kombucha would go back to the plants. Water filtered through those same plants—which would be grown hydroponically, meaning on water—would go to the fish tanks, and the solid waste from the fish would get filtered out to soil-based plants. Meanwhile, the fish’s liquid waste would nourish the hydroponic plants. Spent barley from the beer brewery would also go to feed the fish.
The heart of the operation would be a device called an anaerobic digester. A large, cylindrical machine with a main vessel measuring ninety-eight feet by thirteen feet, the anaerobic digester would—over the course of about a thirty-day cycle—convert organic waste into biogas, a natural gas containing about eighty-five percent methane. So, thirty-two tons of waste from the plants, fish, the beer brewery, and commercial kitchen space, along with organic waste contributed by neighboring businesses, would be fed in. The resulting biogas would, in turn, be burnt to power a turbine generator. The generator would produce electricity for the building’s lights; steam for the kitchen, breweries and heating/cooling system; and carbon dioxide for the plants to absorb.
The whole setup would be called “The Plant.” It would generate all of its own electricity. And, as Edel and Davis like to say, nothing would leave it but food.
On a cold Saturday afternoon last April, Davis led a group of about a dozen students and other curious visitors through the gutted rooms of the 93,500-square-foot space on West 46th Street. Near the southeastern edge of the first floor, by a kitchen and dining area used by staff and volunteers, posters hung down from the ceiling above small scale models of what The Plant would eventually look like. People walked in carrying boxes over a scuffed, red-brick floor that sloped down to the occasional drain. Pipes hung below concrete ceilings, and walls of stone, brick and exposed insulation concealed window spaces that had been bricked up years ago by the owners to prevent sunlight from coming in.
For about a hundred years, explained Davis, when the space was a meat-processing plant, the whole building was kept at frigid temperatures; blocking sunlight meant blocking heat. That, of course, would be changing. “We get very good sunlight,” said Davis, standing by the building’s outer wall, where triple-layer windows had started to be installed. “We’ll have things growing like hops, lavender, things that the brewers and bakers would like us to grow to put into their products.” He indicated where he expects to have tasting pubs, pointing out four 3,000-gallon tanks to be used for brewing.
In the current renovation phase, The Plant has had open houses four times a year. Neighborhood residents have come in and recounted stories from the old meat-processing plant. When it was up and running, not all employees had the chance to socialize with one another, because of divisions by race, work location within the building, and shift times. Today, “There’s a lot of good will in the neighborhood,” said Davis. “They’d like something to happen to this plant, and we pretty much have kept it from being torn down.”
Davis’ tour snaked through the building’s three above-ground floors and basement. Among the skeletons of rooms, some were dank and grungy. One was littered with pots, fluorescent lights and hosing; others had bare, two-foot-diameter pillars running up to the ceiling. In the basement, tilapia swam in fish tanks, while nearby, beds of microgreens sat on shallow water baths under fluorescent lights. Davis laid out a scenario in which employees could gather greens at 9am and deliver them to a restaurant in the city by 10:30am, in time for the lunch menu. “That would be a hard schedule to keep, even if you had a farm that was just outside the city,” he said.
In a room at the northeast corner of the first floor sat a large cabinet with an old turbine engine. Fueled by the biogas, it would produce electricity for the building’s lights; its carbon dioxide output would go to the plants; and its exhaust would be pushed through a wall into a high-efficiency steam boiler. From the boiler, 700 pounds per square inch of 850-degree steam would be carried to the beer brewery, where it would heat up the brew tank—or, alternately, to the communal kitchen space, where a device called an absorption chiller would allow it to cool refrigerators and freezers.
Waste heat from the brewery would go to heat the building, to greenhouses on the roof and, if enough remained, to greenhouses with arched plastic roofing in the yard. In the summer, the absorption chiller would allow the heat to be turned into air conditioning.
The turbine engine, said Davis, would eventually produce about 500 kilowatts of power. He estimated The Plant would need only about 350 kilowatts in total; the rest would be sold back to ComEd.
On the building’s second floor, the visitors walked along jagged, uneven flooring beneath overhead metal rails on which suspended hams used to be slid in for freezing. An old ham freezer stood nearby, as did thirty-year-old smokers made of stainless steel. A baker had set up shop in an adjacent room and was already turning out fresh croissants.
Not only was the building’s finished product to be eco-friendly, explained Davis, but so was the renovation process itself. Volunteers kept an eye toward reusing as many of the building’s original materials in the new setup as they could. To date, they had sent out only two dumpsters worth of trash. “And we really believe,” argued Davis, “that, in hindsight, we could have even reduced that amount.”
While it’s unclear exactly how many vertical farms there are in the United States right now, the number seems to be small but growing. In Orange County, California, a startup called Alegría Fresh is using stacks of pots to grow plants hydroponically. In Milwaukee, a non-profit called Growing Power is seeking donations to build a five-story multi-purpose agricultural center. A couple of environmental and architectural enthusiasts are soliciting funds to construct a three-story greenhouse in downtown Jackson, Wyoming; the project seeks to employ people with disabilities, as well as put out fresh produce all year long.
Beyond American shores, the concept appears to be more widespread. In Devon, England, the Paignton Zoo has a stacked-plant system that it claims produces twenty times the volume of field crops while using five percent of the water. A company in Singapore called Sky Greens has a commercial vertical farm with 120 thirty-foot-high stacks of plant shelves, producing a ton of vegetables every two days. Chieri Kubota, a professor in the School of Plant Sciences at the University of Arizona, reports that vertical systems are already used commercially for leafy crop production in mainland China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. Operations are also in place, or in the planning stages, in Sweden and the Netherlands.
Despommier, the Columbia University professor, is the most vocal advocate for vertical farming today. Not only has he written extensively on the topic, including in his aptly titled book, “The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st century,” but he’s even appeared on “The Tonight Show” and “The Colbert Report.” His ideas may come across as a novelty to many, but his motivations are rooted in trying to solve a serious problem.
Despommier warns that by 2050, the world’s population likely will increase by at least three billion, with almost four-fifths of the people on earth at that time living in cities. “The time is at hand for us to learn how to safely grow our food inside environmentally controlled multistory buildings within urban centers,” he argues. “If we do not, then in just another fifty years, the next three billion people will surely go hungry.”
Adam Stein, an entrepreneur with an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania whose work has dealt in energy efficiency and the environment, knows Despommier’s idea—and disagrees that vertical farms in urban areas are an economically and environmentally worthwhile concept. “Cities are built for people. Lots of people, densely packed, sharing resources,” he wrote in a blog posting at Worldchanging.com four years ago, not long after The New York Times published some fanciful artists’ renderings of what vertical farms may look like. “Innovations that encourage or take advantage of that density are likely to make cities more sustainable. And innovations that undermine density have a lot of work to do to overcome their inherent environmental disadvantages.”
When contacted by email recently, Stein made it clear that he was still skeptical of vertical farming today. “I do continue to think that the general infatuation with vertical farms represents an unfortunately reductive view of sustainability,” he explained. “But the reason we don’t see any actual vertical farms out there—just interesting projects that have appropriated the name for marketing purposes—is because the actual concept is totally impracticable.”
When pushed as to why, he offered a lengthy argument, drawing on cities’ inherent density and high land prices, the energy needs for artificial lighting and a gap in the scale of vertical-farm food production and a burgeoning world population. “Net zero emissions is a great aspirational goal,” he added, cushioning his critique, “and The Plant appears to be aiming for a true closed-loop system, not just energy-intensive farming plus solar panels.”
Indeed, more than just creating new jobs, incubating small businesses, preserving a piece of the city’s architectural history, setting up a research and education resource, and potentially creating a hyper-local food source, John Edel seems to be taking on a grand experiment: He’s trying to marry indoor farming with zero-emissions production. Perhaps his most important success would be to show that this can be done.
Whether that happens won’t be known for several years—probably six or seven. That’s how long Blake Davis estimates that renovation, which is being done largely by volunteers, will take.
Meanwhile, progress continues to happen piecemeal. On a bitterly cold Monday in January, Edel took me on a tour of the facilities in their current state. He led me down a dank, dimly lit basement hallway with puddles of water and debris strewn on the ground. Passing by a bunch of rust-tinted engines, we came upon an L-shaped cabinet with metal pipes protruding up from the back like a pipe organ. Above a stack of circuit breakers in the open-faced cabinet, he pointed to five small LCD displays. These were so-called “smart meters,” devices connected to the Internet that allow tenants to monitor their power consumption.
“Part of the central building information system,” he explained, “will look at what power is being consumed somewhere and make recommendations about running different programs in the middle of the night, or whatever we need to do in order to even it out.”
Proceeding from there up a stairwell with lime-green walls, we passed under a medium-sized painting. The image of two white, curved rectangles on a brown background was part of an up-and-coming art installation. The Plant now had a volunteer curator.
In an airy room on the second floor, a stand-alone wood-fired oven measuring about ten feet by fifteen feet by some eight feet tall seemed out of place. Its walls of white tiles gleamed in the otherwise empty room, which was set to be power-washed later that day. The space belonged to Peerless Bread & Jam, whose owner, Lauren Bushnell, reported that she already turns out sourdough whole-grain bread, among other baked goods, selling her products at the Green City Market in Lincoln Park on Saturdays.
Edel walked over to the north-facing windows and pointed out toward a pit in the northeastern corner of the triangular plot of land. There were black tarps marking a fourteen-foot hole being dug there. This would become the “tipping pit” of the anaerobic digester system—specifically, the area into which organic waste would be dumped. “Almost all of the underground concrete work is done,” he said, with 540 cubic yards already poured. A round vessel in the foreground, one of three vessels comprising the whole digester, weighed more than three-million pounds.
Construction on the anaerobic digester continued six days a week, and Edel expected it to be finished and operational by July. After that, hoophouses—greenhouses with arched plastic roofing—and raised plant beds would be installed. The lot also would have an outdoor amphitheater for educational activities and an orchard, the latter set up with help from the Chicago Rarities Orchard Project, a non-profit dedicated to creating rare-fruit orchards in the city.
As we left the room, I asked Edel about the baker turning out fresh croissants that Blake Davis spoke about during his tour the previous April. “They disappeared in the middle of the night and went underground— again,” he said. “They’re running from the health department.” He found out only after they left that they had been moving from one place to another. “Last I heard, they were in Indiana somewhere,” he added. A new tenant, Pleasant House Bakery, now occupied their space.
When we reached a third-floor landing, Edel showed off a couple of floral-design metal candelabras mounted up on the wall. Each had five stems with an LED bulb. From there, he led me over to a wide-open area where sunlight streamed through the windows onto a largely empty red brick floor; only a couple of tables and some shelving comprised the furnishings. This would become office space for both Plant Chicago, the non-profit organization, and the building’s for-profit tenants.
We walked downstairs again, passing the second floor, which now awaited the possible arrival of a coffee roaster, on our way to yet another room in the basement. In that room, under bright, fluorescent ceiling lights, a handful of plastic tubes measuring several feet long and a couple of feet in diameter hung down from the ceiling. Brown, mashed-up straw filled their cores, and mushrooms sprouted out horizontally through the sides. The air in the room was warm and humid.
Here, explained Edel, Plant Chicago grew pearl oyster, pink oyster and lion’s mane mushrooms. “We break them off, and they just instantly poke back out again,” he said. “Pretty soon this will be absolutely full. We’re ramping up the production.”
The mushrooms, he informed me, were already being sold to restaurants and at the Logan Square Farmer’s Market. I asked him how shoppers at the farmer’s market react when they learn the mushrooms come from the inside of a building in the city. “They love it,” he replied. “Because it’s organic, it’s local.”
We continued to a much larger room across the way. There, greens sprouted up through sheets of plastic foam atop shallow beds of water, and white and purple lights hovered overhead. Blake Davis’ tour had passed through here, and the room looked now much as it did back then. The fish tank that had been on the south side of the room had been moved, though the tilapia were still there, some 1,500 of them now. Pink, vertically placed plastic foam sheets punctuated with small, dirt-filled holes had little bunches of arugula growing in them. Edel pointed out a door off to the side of the room that read “Nature’s Little Recyclers”; in there, he explained, a commercial earthworm operation had set up shop to help provide feed for Plant Chicago’s tilapia.
Up in a room on the second floor not open to regular tours, Galen Williams, CEO of SkyyGreens Aquaponics, offered me the chance to see the 2,000-square-foot space belonging to what is, as of last September, Chicago’s very first licensed indoor farm. The room had little more than shelves with long, white trays containing leafy greens and two stand-up dehumidifiers on the floor. Williams darted around to tend to his crops as he explained the backstory of the business.
A native Texan who grew up on a farm and went on to get his MBA from the University of Chicago, Williams used to work in financial services at Morgan Stanley. Two years ago, he was approached by a former client of his there and asked to look at a business proposal for an aquaponics operation. “They asked me to look at it, and I said, ‘You know, I’ll look at it. You know, I’ll come up with a plan. You do what you want with it,’” Williams said, speaking rapid-fire. “I started looking at it, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ You know… this is the perfect storm.”
Williams was no stranger to investing. Not only had he been a principal at a boutique private equity firm, but he also co-founded and served as the first executive director of Hyde Park Angels, an early-stage investment group for entrepreneurs in the Chicago area. Upon reading about the aquaponics operation, he got so excited that he wanted to become a part of it.
“There are two big macro-trends, I think, that really stood out for this: One, foodie culture. You have cable TV; you have chefs that are becoming celebrities now; people are actually liking other countries—they’re taking trips and just going and dining.”
“And,” he went on, letting out a small chuckle, “legalized marijuana. You know, nature, as far as having a growing apparatus really growing indoors. Those are the two big things right now.”
He knew that people had been doing hydroponics and aquaponics—he made it a point to emphasize that the former involves water only, while the latter includes fish—for years. The challenge, as he saw it, was how to increase the scale of growing—and profit from that.
Williams, who now came into the building seven days a week, planned to increase the size of his space here five-fold by knocking down a wall. He expected that the work necessary on a day-to-day basis once everything was up and running would be “minimal if everything is going well.” He showed me some greens that had been germinated but still had a yellowish tint. “In about five or six hours, they’re going to be greener.”
Though SkyyGreens isn’t growing at full capacity yet, it’s already selling what it is growing. Williams was evasive on the question of whom exactly he sells to—or would sell to in the future—be it restaurants or supermarkets or elsewhere. He also refused to say exactly what greens he would grow in the future, but he indicated that arugula would be a mainstay. He did make it clear he had a target market in mind, one that would be willing to pay a premium for ultra-fresh greens. He’s already looking ahead to expanding the business beyond Chicago, including to the West Coast.
Sitting in a hard-backed booth at a table in the staff dining area as lunchtime approached, Edel reported that the vendor that was supposed to supply and install the building’s power system “has run for the hills.” He was now in talks with other ones to get a significantly more efficient system than before. “The increase in efficiency will pay for the delay and pay for the disaster,” he said, trying to strike a positive note.
I commented that a few surprises had crept up that he hadn’t expected. “Oh, always, yeah,” he replied. “But that’s, you know… if it was easy, everybody’d be doing it.”
It came across as a glimmer of tenacity in Edel’s otherwise generally calm demeanor. I pushed a little further, asking if he strived to be a pioneer in all this, and that’s why he kept at it.
He replied, “It’s the only way that it’s fun.”
Fun it seemed to be for John Edel. The skinny man with bushy eyebrows, a well-receded hairline, and an intent but almost bashful gaze never appeared to tire of talking about the operation, or his aspirations for it.
However, when I changed gears and asked if he had written up a business plan for The Plant, his response was more vague. “Yeah, I mean, we have pro formas looking out ten years,” he started saying, “but, umm, you know, you establish what you think is going to happen, and then you lean toward it. But, you know, some things do; some things don’t. But yeah, I mean… thought pretty well through everything.”
The conversation moved to the ongoing work. In spite of the cold temperatures, they were still pulling up plants from the ground; the previous month, they had harvested the last of the carrots. “We are preparing three times the amount of outdoor growing space that we had last summer,” he announced. “Next summer that will increase ten-fold. Once the digester is built, then we’re going to open up that whole yard to growing space.”
I asked if he felt like he was running an ongoing long-distance race, or whether he saw a finish line to the work. Or, I added, did he just enjoy the continual challenge of it all?
“Yeah, I don’t really ever see a finish line,” he said. “I mean, I think there are points along the way that are major milestones. So, you look toward them as achieving milestones while working toward the much later ones. And, umm, you have to break it down like that. Otherwise, it’s just too much.”
It was emblematic of how Edel seemed to be as a person: driven, clearly smart and knowledgeable, and thoughtful, but reticent when it came to talking about his feelings. “John has a strong do-it-yourself ethic,” said Melanie Hoekstra, The Plant’s director of operations, when I asked her about Edel as a person. “He sees materials differently than most people, intuitively understanding how to modify them to fit his purposes. This flexibility carries over into other aspects of his life, which makes him a very creative colleague who is open to new ideas and different approaches.”
A more illuminating exchange took place at that same table around 2pm, once half a dozen men in their twenties and thirties had filtered in to join Edel for a lunch of thin-crust spinach pizza. As they took turns grabbing slices from the box, conversation bounced around from the smell of chocolate that wafts over downtown from the Blommer Chocolate Company, to plans for receiving organic waste from the nearby Vantage Oleochemicals factory, to—at Edel’s prompting—one of the volunteers.
“So, where did you come from? How did you…?” he asked a twenty-something guy with dark hair sitting across the table from him.
“I came from North Carolina,” replied the guy.
“Hell, yeah!” piped in another.
“Yeah?” said the first, his voice picking up. Commotion ensued.
“An invasion,” remarked Edel lightheartedly.
“I have been sort of adventuring around over the last few years,” said the guy. “Spent the year in Latin America doing volunteer work. At the end of that, wound up in Panama and was introduced to aquaponics. They were doing Third World applications of aquaponics.”
“Where in Panama?” asked Edel.
“In Boquete, which is in the western part of the country. It’s, like, close to the Costa Rican border.”
“Okay,” said Edel in a firm voice. “Okay. I don’t know if I’ve been there, but I’ve been all over Panama. I don’t know if I’ve been there.”
In their bantering back-and-forth about traveling, about flora and fauna, and about microclimates, Edel came across not like a boss—not at all authoritative or pretentious, but rather, like just one of the guys.
He eventually asked the new recruit softly, “Do you have family up here or anything?” It sounded more like a friendly question than an interview.
“No, I’ve actually never visited Chicago,” said the guy with a nervous laugh. “Came up here for The Plant.”
Edel’s voice perked up. “Wow! All right.”
A brief pause. Then, “Cool.”
Last July, as he sat in that same hard-backed booth while volunteers and staff prepared hyper-locally sourced lunch nearby, I asked Edel what pushed him forward in the long process of bringing The Plant to fruition. His response then was telling—as much for understanding him as for understanding the question of why create the place.
“It is a desire,” he said slowly, his brow furrowed, “to demonstrate the value inherent in all of the things that are normally considered waste, whether it’s buildings, materials, gasses, people.”
“Our society is so stunningly wasteful,” he continued. “If a bunch of idealists—crazy idealists—can do it with almost no money, but a lot of creativity, then what is corporate America’s excuse?”
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