Google the phrase “vertical farm,” and you’ll quickly run into futuristic artist’s renderings of glass skyscrapers filled with lush vegetation. You can almost picture a zero-emission flying car touching down among the greenery. Mention these pie-in-the-sky eco-visions to John Edel, and he just smiles and rolls his eyes.
In fact, Edel expresses his amused exasperation while standing inside the world’s first vertical farm, which looks nothing like those visions on the Internet. Instead, it looks a hell of a lot like a gigantic, abandoned pork-processing plant in Back of the Yards. Of course, it’s not abandoned: Edel, 41, bought the 93,500-square-foot building for $525,000, loaned from family members, last July, and he’s been transforming it in the months since, much of the work done with his own hands. The lanky, bearded video-game-designer-turned-eco-entrepreneur is wearing a knit hat and an impressively filthy button-down shirt the day we tour his nascent project, located a few blocks east of South Ashland Avenue on West 47th Street. He’s calling it the Plant.
Vertical farming, which grows food inside multilevel urban buildings rather than on sprawling outdoor farmland, seems like a pipe dream. But Edel’s version has several key elements that bring it into the realm of reality. The superefficient heart of the operation will be an anaerobic digester, a contraption that turns organic matter produced inside the building—plant waste, for instance—into biogas (mostly methane). The biogas will run a turbine, producing heat and electricity for the building without creating any unusable waste. The turbine will power the building’s lights—including the grow lights for the farm, in the basement. The farm is an aquaponics system. Fish (talapia, in this case) and plants (a mix of microgreens) live in balance: The plants use nutrients from the fishes’ waste and grow under banks of lights. The farm plans to sell its extremely local produce at the Super Mas supermarket across the street (though most of its sales will be to restaurants, at least initially).
Perhaps the biggest innovation that Edel brings to vertical farming is the incorporation of food manufacturing into the same building. There are already a few businesses renting space at the Plant, such as 312 Aquaponics, which creates fish-and-plant growing systems, and Thrive Artisan Kombucha, which brews the fermented beverage (Thrive can be purchased at the Dill Pickle Food Co-op in Logan Square, among other places). “That’s another one of these symbiotic relationships I have,” Edel says of the kombucha brewer. “I look for tenants based on their ins and outs. He needs oxygen and he produces carbon dioxide. Our plants are the opposite, so it’s a simple matter to put a duct between there and a growing room, and share.” Everything is interconnected. The farm is just one element nested into the ecosystem that is the Plant.
All the businesses in the once-USDA-certified building will be food-producing. Potential tenants include a beer brewery, a bakery and a mushroom-growing operation. Rent will go back into the vertical farm.
Sound far-fetched? It’s not Edel’s first project of the sort. In 2002, he bought a rundown Bridgeport building and turned it into the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, which is now a profitable center for mostly small, ecofriendly businesses.
Edel’s set to achieve a second unlikely success. At the Plant, there’s an encouraging sign: the first fish swimming along in their basement tanks. Though he estimates it will still be four years before all the pieces are in place, including full occupancy by tenant businesses, Edel’s vision is about to turn the corner from a construction project to history-making eco-business.
For more information on Edel’s ecofriendly brainchild, visit plantchicago.com.