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Growing Up: Vertical Farming Takes Root in Chicago

During a Saturday afternoon in November, three volunteers at The Plant Chicago were busy busting down two brick walls with hammers and crowbars. Their protective eye goggles fogged up and sweat rolled down their foreheads as bits of mortar flew into the air. As they slammed their tools into the wall, they had to be careful not to destroy the bricks. They would be reused later to construct a bakery oven in the building.

Below them, three college students in The Plant’s basement glued pieces of PVC piping together as classic rock blared from a radio. These pipes will allow water to run from fish tanks to a plant bed.

From the outside, The Plant may look like an abandoned building, but there is a unique plan growing inside — Chicago’s first vertical farm.

Vertical farming

Chicagoans import almost all of the city’s fresh produce. A package of cherry tomatoes from the Lakeview Jewel-Osco grocery store, for example, traveled all the way from Eden Prairie, Minn. t

VertiCrop System
Image via Wikipedia

o get here, according to the label. A package of larger tomatoes was shipped to the store from Arlington, Texas.

Growing food thousands of miles outside the city and transporting it in is simply not practical or sustainable, and the environment suffers as a result, says Dickson Despommier, a professor of environmental health sciences and microbiology at Columbia University. Producing food locally could make the city more sustainable.

The traditional way of farming and transporting produce to urban areas may seem to be working fine now, but in the future that may not be the case. In his book “The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century,” Despommier wrote that the world’s population is growing larger each day, and a consequence of this growth is global warming. The more the population grows, the more fossil fuels we pump into the environment for our food production.

“If we continue with our current food-producing strategies, getting enough high-quality, safe produce to 8.5 billion people will define the next crisis we must address and remedy if the human species is to survive,” he wrote.

There are a handful of community, rooftop and city gardens in Chicago aimed at keeping food local, which many believe is a step in the right direction for reducing the city’s fossil fuel emissions. But according to Despommier, the traditional way of farming — planting horizontal rows of plants in soil — is not a permanent, long term solution to providing fresh food to Chicago’s residents.

Ben Kennedy, an architect who contributed to the Museum of Science and Industry’s farming exhibit “Fast Forward…Inventing the Future,” says although the way we farm now was the original way to grow food, that does not mean it is the efficient way.

“The traditional way of farming is all we know,” Kennedy says. “It creates the pretty pictures of the smiling cow with the nice little farm in the background, but when you think about it, that is not how it really is.”

He says a problem with traditional farming is that after growing food on the same land for many years, the soil eventually lacks the nutrients necessary to continue producing food. This means over time there will be less and less available farmland. This may not be a pressing issue at the moment, but it is a reality of the future that must be addressed now.

This is possible because innovative agricultural technology has made producing year-round local, organic and nutritious foods indoors and within city limits a potential reality.

Farming indoors itself is not a new concept; many high tech greenhouses already successfully produce large quantities of fresh produce. The problem is that most greenhouses are located outside city limits where land is cheap, so there is still the problem of transporting food long distances, which results in high carbon emissions.

According to Despommier, the solution is to build farms vertically — literally stacking rows of plants on top of each other — in buildings within the city.

What type of plants can grow in buildings? Despommier says all types. Even the complicated orchid plant will grow indoors.

“So if you can do that with an orchid, you can certainly do that with a potato,” he says.

Outdoor plants need soil so their roots can spread out, but plants grown indoors and arranged vertically could be grown hydroponically. Hydroponics grows plants in mineral-enriched water without soil and uses 70 percent less water than conventional farming, according to Despommier.

Vertical farms could also use a growing method called aquaponics, which uses the hydroponic method to grow fish and plants together. Everything is recycled in this farming system. The waste from the fish serves as nutrients for the plants and the plants filter the water for the fish to live in.

There are indoor, high-tech farms that already use hydroponics, such as Euro Fresh Farms in Wilcox, Ariz., which spans 318 acres and is the world’s largest hydroponic greenhouse. Despommier, the visionary behind the vertical farm, says the only difference between Euro Fresh Farms and a vertical farm is compressing those 318 acres into a vertical building closer to the city. It turns out to be a big difference, however, because it requires a rethinking of how to make a building.

One rendering of a future vertical farm for Chicago, created by Blake Kurasek featured in ‘The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century,’ looks like a 100-story spiral staircase upright in Lake Michigan with Navy Pier and the John Hancock building in the background. The enclosed spiral tower made of glass has vegetation growing inside. White sailboats drift around the tower. For this farm, the Lake Michigan water below would be used for the plants inside.

Skyscraper vertical farms like this exist only in concept, but some ways of farming indoors that have adopted vertical farming techniques have made their way to Chicago. One example is the window farm, a do-it-yourself approach to eating more sustainably on display at the Garfield Park Conservatory and soon to be up and growing at Columbia College Chicago. Another example is The Plant Chicago, an empty meat-processing plant on the South Side that is soon to be the city’s first large-scale aquaponic vertical farm.

Despommier says the evolution of the vertical farming is similar to the process the U.S. had when attempting to go to the moon. In the beginning the country had a single-stage rocket — the V2.

“We worked with it and worked with it, and we still had only one-stage rockets,” he says. “We are now at the stage of a one-stage rocket in terms of food production inside buildings, and we need to go to a three-stage rocket scenario. So we need to throw money, technology and gifted people at this problem to get it solved soon so that the world can use it.”

Window Farming

The vertical farm may be Despommier’s brainchild, but he wants people to use his ideas for a common good, which is also the Windowfarms Project’s philosophy.

The Windowfarms Project, a nonprofit organization in New York started by two artists in 2009, conceptualized the vertical window farm.

A window farm is a small-scale hydroponic system made from almost 100 percent recycled materials, such as plastic bottles that hangs in a window. The farm can grow greens and small fruits or vegetables and can produce food year-round. Even someone with a small apartment without access to a rooftop or a yard for a garden can grow fresh and nutritious food.

The Windowfarms Project consists of volunteers who assemble premade kits, which can be purchased on their website. Free detailed directions for making a farm out of locally sourced materials are also available on the website.

According to Britta Riley, one of the founders of the organization, their mantra is “research and develop it yourself,” or “R&D-I-Y,” meaning anyone who wants to can be involved in creating window farms. The Windowfarms Project has an active community forum where people interested can discuss all things related to window farms. For Riley, the project’s goal is “to be environmentally, socially and financially sustainable while getting as many as possible of the most unlikely folks growing some of their own food.”

And now the technology has made its way from New York to Chicago. The window farm at the Garfield Park Conservatory, located at 300 N. Central Park Ave., was built by Harold Washington College students. Mary Eysenbach, director of conservatories for the Chicago Park District, says the window farm is a way to educate and provide the public with new horticulture ideas.

“The idea of a window farm was really intriguing to us because there are so many people who live in the city who do not have access to soil but do have windows,” Eysenbach says.

Eysenbach says window farming is a way for people in urban areas to connect with the natural world.

“Food is a natural visceral connection,” she says. “The window farm provides that opportunity.”

According to Eysenbach, the conservatory hopes the window farm will inspire people to use their resources in the best way possible to engage with plants. The window farm was built with empty sports drink bottles and products from the local hardware, pet and garden supply store. It cost under $100 to construct.

The actual farm hangs by chains from the ceiling connected to the top water reservoir made from PVC pipe. Three thin, black drip tubes run vertically from the top water reservoir to the bottom reservoir. The bottom water reservoir holds water and nutrients and pumps it to the top reservoir with a submersible fish tank pump.

The water trickles down onto the planters, which are made from the sport drink bottles that hang with the cap down. Each drip tube runs through three planters. The sides of the bottles are cut out to allow room for the plants to grow.

Inside each of the nine planters is a net cup and growth media made from inflated clay pellets that support the roots of the plant. Some of the plants growing in the window farm include oregano, basil, peppermint and an aster flowering plant.

The farm does require electricity for the fish tank pump, and there is daily and monthly maintenance, which can take up to 20 minutes. But besides a sunny window, the farm does not need much.

Riley believes there are plenty of people who are fascinated by and like to experiment with green technology, so why not share ideas if they are leading to a common good?

“The Windowfarms Project has been a pretty successful test case for how quickly a technology can be assimilated, refined, and publicly shared through R&D-I-Y,” she says.

The Plant Chicago

Back at The Plant, the volunteers have stacked two palates of bricks as John Edle, the building’s owner, showed a group interested in eco-friendly buildings around on a tour.

Edel, like Riley from the Windowfarms Project, is one of those people fascinated by green technology, which is one reason he started The Plant. Although the project is still in its infancy, once completed The Plant will be Chicago’s first large-scale aquaponic vertical farm.

The Plant’s home was once Peer Foods, a meat processing plant located at 1400 W. 46th St. in the heart of the famous Chicago stockyards. The building may still smell like bacon, but it is ideal for a vertical farm because the United States Department of Agriculture already approved the infrastructure — a certification that would be required in the future if The Plant wanted to process and sell the fish they grow in their aquaponic farm.

This may be Edel’s first big attempt at farming indoors, but he has retrofitted a building in the past. Around 10 years ago Edel started the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, also known as Bubbly Dynamics, located at 1048 W. 37th St., which turned a vacant, derelict industrial building into a sustainable manufacturing center.

Two years ago, while Edel was working on Bubbly Dynamics, Blake Davis, a sustainable urban agriculture expert from the Illinois Institute of Technology, was working with a class of students who were interested in vertical farming. Davis sent one of his students over to Bubbly Dynamics to talk with Edel.

“People kept saying to me, ‘There is this guy John Edel and he is interested in doing vertical farming,’” Davis says. “They were really impressed with him and said, ‘You have to meet him.’”

Turns out Davis and Edel were thinking along the same lines.

In the spring of 2009 Edel, Davis and students from IIT started a 400-square-foot aquaponic prototype in the basement of Bubbly Dynamics. Edel purchased the vacant meat processing plant shortly after for around $500,000. The building was on the market for many years and would ultimately be torn down and sold as scrap metal if Edel did not purchase it.

In fall 2010, volunteers started to assemble the aquaponic system in the basement and plan to build the farm around 3,000 square feet. Edel has only two part-time student engineers working for him; the rest of the work is done by volunteers. So far a large, wooden rectangle raised off the floor has been constructed and will be used as the plant bed. Eventually it will be lined so it can be filled with water. Food-grade tanks, which hold 275 gallons each, shaped like cubes and donated from a bakery, are on a wooden platform at the side of the plant bed. These tanks will hold hundreds of fish.

There are no windows in the basement, so six 300-watt grow lights will hang along a track system above the plant bed. The three volunteers were in the final stages of assembling the PVC piping that will allow the water to run from the fish tanks to the plant bed by the end of the month. There will be three identical aquaponic systems in the basement when finished, which will grow and morph over time after more research.

Once The Plant’s aquaponic prototype farm is finished, Davis says they plan to move up to the second floor, but right now the second floor still consists of meat smokers on each the size of a living room that need to be removed as well as the brick walls. The smokers will not be dumped into a landfill. One of the project’s goals is to reuse everything and create minimal waste. Any extra stainless steel will be sold as scrap metal.

During a break, Edle, Davis and volunteers casually chatted over lunch about how the make-shift break room was once the place where trucks brought in animal carcasses. They joked while eating their vegetarian pizza that animal spirits are still trapped in the building. “You will look at bacon differently after working in here,” one volunteer says. After lunch, as Edel and a volunteer walked down a hallway, a rustling noise came from the ceiling in front of a poorly-lit smokehouse room with charred walls. Edel paused and glanced at the ceiling.

“Moooo,” he says. So far no one at The Plant has seen a cow or pig ghost, he assures.

There are a handful of farms in the U.S. that have adopted vertical farming techniques, such as Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wis., but The Plant will be much more than a vertical farm when finished, according to Davis.

The Plant is different than existing farms because half of the building will be the nonprofit vertical farm and the other half will be food-related business tenants, offices and community kitchens. The rooftop will also be an enclosed 8,000-square-foot greenhouse. Future tenants include a brewery and a bakery, among others.

Nothing from the farm or the tenants will be wasted because The Plant will be a closed-loop system, meaning nothing will leave the building except food. For example, the grain waste from the brewery will be used for the plants and fish or possibly an alternative energy source to power the building.

Edel is looking at composting or putting the brewery waste into anaerobic digesters to produce methane, which may be able to produce some of the power necessary to run the lighting and heat. Anaerobic digesters break down organic material without oxygen to create methane and carbon dioxide, also known as biogas. Employees of the former meat processing plant left multiple skids of expired barbecue sauce and ham rub in the building. Edel plans to use the sugar-based sauces in the digesters.

“You can throw practically anything into a digester — except for Styrofoam,” Edel says.

The Plant will be a waste input station for other small breweries in the city too.

“There are a bunch of brewers interested in having a place to send their waste where they know it will do something productive instead of sending it to a landfill,” Edel says. “Bring it here and we will make energy out of it and grow stuff on it.”

Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea will also send their spent coffee grounds and coffee bean chaff — the waste after roasting coffee beans — to be used in The Plant. Intelligentsia will also donate their burlap sacks and plastic bags to be used for repackaging.

As far as what will eventually grow in The Plant, it makes the most sense to start off growing lettuce, herbs and other produce that can be grown in a relatively short cycle until the growing system is perfected.  They would not want to lose a crop that took many months to grow if there was a system malfunction.

“You could have a system shut down and everything would be a freezing temperature for a day or a weekend, and that would probably kill the plants,” Davis says.

For fish, they are starting with tilapia because they mature twice as quickly as other fish.

There are two huge challenges facing The Plant’s aquaponic vertical farm before it can successfully grow mass amounts of produce and become a replicable vertical farm model. First, the sun is being replaced by grow lights, so there is an energy component that needs to be as efficient as possible. Second, there needs to be a profitable business model. Davis says bringing in money is crucial for The Plant’s success and the future of vertical farming in the city and around the world. Edel and Davis want The Plant to be successful so more people will replicate it.

“If it makes some money, even a small amount, people can move forward,” Davis says.  “If it is always a money loser, eventually people will say this is not really working, and they will lose interest in it.”

But Ken Dunn, founder and president of the Resource Center, Chicago’s largest nonprofit recycling organization, says vertical farming is not as sustainable as it sounds.

“It is just a pipe dream,” he says.

According to Dunn, vertical farming uses too much energy for heating and cooling. He says farming like this is an elite notion and more for the architects who want to keep busy when not as many buildings are being built.

“A few elite may get food from vertical farms, but we cannot afford to put that much energy into vertical farms,” he says.

For Dunn, The Plant sounds like an ingenious concept because of Edel’s plan to include businesses in the building, but he says that design is not replicable. The Plant will be a success because of money brought in from the tenants, but that model will not work forever because there will eventually be an over-saturation of food-related businesses.

“The city can only have so many breweries,” Dunn says.

Dunn’s sustainable urban agriculture solution is to farm more traditionally on vacant land in the city. One of Resource Center’s prime example of this is City Farm — a model for urban, organic agriculture in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green neighborhood. City Farm grows vegetables such as tomatoes, beets and carrots in composted soil and sells the produce to local restaurants and the public from an on-site market, according to City Farm’s website.

According to the website, the City Farm program “strives to provide education in sustainable farming, as well as job creation, building a community-sustained operation while also providing highly nutritious products to people in diverse neighborhoods.”

Farming this way does not use energy like vertical farming would, nor does it require as much investment, Dunn says.

Other critics of vertical farming agree that the energy use is too high. Bruce Bugbee, a crop physiologist at Utah State University, is an outspoken opponent of vertical farms. In a 2009 National Geographic article about the topic he says, “We’re talking gigawatts of power, just huge amounts of power [to grow crops indoors], compared to free sunlight outside.”

Edel says he will address the energy concern in his building by using the anaerobic digesters mentioned earlier.

What can vertical farming do for the Windy City?

The benefits of vertical farming are impressive.  But if it makes so much sense to farm this way, why do we not have more large-scale vertical farms in cities around the world?

First, vertical farming costs a lot of money, even more money if the building is going to be constructed from scratch. If someone could muster up enough cash to build that spiral skyscraper farm on Lake Michigan, they probably still would not build it. It would be too risky, according to the architect Kennedy. To date, no one has successfully built a large-scale vertical farm with a profitable business model. Unfortunately, until that happens or the government subsidizes vertical farming, they will not exist in this fashion, Despommier says.

Despommier knows initial start-up costs will be high and that expense is why smaller prototypes like The Plant must be built first.

“Onsite renewable energy production should not prove more costly than the use of expensive fossil fuel for big rigs that plow, plant and harvest crops (and emit volumes of pollutants and greenhouse gases),” he wrote in Scientific American in 2009. “Until we gain operational experience, it will be difficult to predict how profitable a vertical farm could be.”

Kennedy crunched the numbers to construct a vertical farm in a warehouse located between the Pilsen and Chinatown neighborhoods for his thesis at IIT in 2007. He became interested in vertical farming and saw the abandoned building as an ideal place to build one. He said using existing buildings like what The Plant is doing is more practical than building a skyscraper farm because that is uncharted territory. He said no one knows yet what system will work, so ultimately it comes down to knowledge and money.

“There is different technology involved in growing the produce,” Kennedy says.  “Some is dirt cheap, but you are only going to get a small yield out of it. The high-tech systems cost a lot of money, but you will get a higher yield.”

This is why the success of The Plant is so important. If they can make their vertical farm replicable and perfect their business model others may attempt it. Maybe then the government will get on board to help fund future farms.

So what are the benefits for Chicago?

Some argue vertical farming is a job creation vehicle. According to Davis, The Plant will generate low-skilled jobs, which many people currently desperately need.

“There may be a few engineers working in here, but there will be a whole lot of other people maintaining plants, watering vegetables, taking care of fish and doing other things that doesn’t require advance technical degrees,” he says.

Most of the abandoned buildings or underused land ideal for vertical farming is located in neighborhoods that could most use job creation and economic growth. Another benefit is the abandoned building or vacant land will be occupied again, which could bring more businesses into the area and help turn around a dilapidated block or neighborhood.

“It is a chance to reuse the building, revamp the area, bring in jobs and not have to keep that empty building there, or eventually it is going to be torn down,” Kennedy says.

Also, many of these blighted areas in Chicago are food deserts, meaning the closest grocery store with fresh produce may be miles away. However, there are usually many unhealthy choices such as convenience stores with chips and candy or fast-food restaurants. The farms could sell the freshly picked produce or fish right outside the building. This would be a solution to eliminate carbon emissions that come with transporting food thousands of miles.

Bevan Suits, one of the founders of Aquaplanet, an organization of aquaponic experts, is an active participant on The Windowfarms Project’s community forum and discusses how to make aquaponic systems.

According to Suits, growing fish and plants together have many positive benefits, including education, community, employment, nutrition and creative opportunities.

“The benefits are really about people and community, beyond the actual food or revenue from selling the food,” Suits says. “Aquaponics represents a way for non-farmers, without land, to seriously consider growing a complete diet with fast growth and high yields. It is ideal for cities like Chicago because it can be done year-round in homes and commercial buildings.”

For Despommier, vertical farming is a way to improve our cities and the environment now, but also the lives of generations 100 years and more into the future. If the vast amount of land used to produce food for urban cities moved into vertical farms that would allow the horizontally-farmed land to return to its original ecological setting, which would solve a huge amount of the climate change issue, he says. If the farmland in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa were returned to the hardwood forests they used to be, the forests would soak up 20 percent of the United State’s carbon emissions on an annual basis, according to Despommier.

“We could prove to the world that we are really concerned about the climate, and we could do something about it by simply letting the trees grow back,” he says.

Food security issues are also a concern that could be eliminated with vertical farming.

“In the middle of the winter, we are probably 800 miles from anybody who is growing any food,” Davis says. “Even a trucker strike would be something that would keep us from having fresh produce.”

Mayor Richard M. Daley is a supporter of vertical farms in Chicago. According to an article from Journal Sentinel, a news publication in Milwaukee, Wis., Daley alluded to The Plant project at a Milwaukee conference in June. According to the article, “he hopes to eventually see organic food grown year-round at a building near the former site of Chicago’s historic stockyards, just blocks from the house where he grew up.”

Daley may be retiring in February, but that is not necessarily bad for the vertical farm, according to Despommier.

“A guy like him never actually really leaves,” he says. “He might be retired, but I don’t think he’s ever going to step out of the picture.”

In the vertical farm’s case, “It’s a good thing.”

Dunn disagrees.

“The mayor is wrong,” he says. “Vertical farming is not in our future. It is too expensive.”

Some 2011 mayoral candidates have proposed ways to make the city more sustainable. Chicago City Clerk Miguel del Valle, for example, publicized his environmental agenda at a press conference in The Plant’s basement Dec. 9. Del Valle wants to expand the city’s recycling program, upgrade the sewer and water infrastructure to ensure efficiency and appoint a chief environmental officer, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Whether or not the new mayor supports vertical farming, Davis is still optimistic it will be a success in the city.

The stockyards were once the food center of Chicago, he says.

“Maybe that’s what it will be again in the future.”

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