The Plant’s mission is to promote closed-loop food production and sustainable economic development through education and research. How are we carrying out this mission? Read on to find out!
What is The Plant? A Farm for the Future.
From its beginnings as a 93,500 s.f. meatpacking facility, The Plant is being repurposed into a net-zero energy vertical farm and food business operation. A complex and highly interrelated system, one-third of The Plant will hold aquaponic growing systems and the other two-thirds will incubate sustainable food businesses by offering low rent, low energy costs, and (eventually) a licensed shared kitchen. The Plant will create 125 jobs in Chicago’s economically distressed Back of the Yards neighborhood – but, remarkably, these jobs will require no fossil fuel use. Instead, The Plant will install a renewable energy system that will eventually divert over 10,000 tons of food waste from landfills each year to meet all of its heat and power needs.
Click on picture for high-res version. Copyright by Matt Bergstrom.
A Net-Zero Energy System
Funded in part by $1.5 million in grant money from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, The Plant will install an anaerobic digester and a combined heat and power system to operate completely off the grid. By 2015, the completely enclosed, odorless anaerobic digester will consume 27 tons of food waste a day (~10,000 tons annually), including all of the waste produced in the facility and by neighboring food manufacturers. The digester will capture all of the methane from that waste, and the methane will be burned in a combined heat and power system to produce 400 kW of electricity, plus all the process heat needed for an onsite craft beer brewery. Excess heat will be used in an absorption chiller to regulate the building’s temperature. The Plant will also be energy efficient: while the building is already heavily insulated, we are improving the efficiency of existing mechanicals using recycled and locally manufactured materials.
Growing Vegetables with Fish
Recycling will also take place in the aquaponic farm systems. Aquaponics is a closed-loop growing system that creates a symbiotic relationship between tilapia and vegetables. The tilapia produce ammonia-based waste that is sent through a biofilter where solids settle out and the rest is broken down into nitrates. Those nitrates are then fed to plants growing in hydroponic beds. By absorbing the nitrates, the plants clean the water, which is returned to the fish. The Plant will sell both the fish and the vegetables to local food markets and restaurants, and will do so at a profit.
Incubating Sustainable Food Businesses
Also integral to The Plant are the artisanal food businesses, including a beer brewery, a bakery, a kombucha (fermented tea) brewery, a mushroom farm, and a shared kitchen. Here again, waste from one business will be used as food for another. A good example is the spent distillers grains from the brewery will be fed to the tilapia, while solids from the tilapia waste will be fed to the mushrooms. This self-sustaining, interconnected system helps the businesses housed in The Plant grow and prosper together, while creating new, green jobs in a struggling community.
Adaptation and Replication
Truly sustainable business requires not only closing resource loops, but also creating a replicable and adaptable model. Plant Chicago will do this two ways. First, we will put a complete, free business case study on our website, including detailed financial and technical information. (It’s not up yet, but we’ll update this as soon as we post it. Expect an outline probably at the end of 2012 and the full report in 2016; in the meantime, see our FAQ and Press pages for more details.) And second, we will host seminars for sustainability professionals, college students, schoolchildren, and the public to learn about a wide range of topics, from energy and efficiency in buildings to obesity to growing techniques. Plant Chicago aims to touch as many people as possible to foster a new, sustainable direction in agriculture.
Social Enterprise Model
The Plant is operated under a what’s called a social enterprise model. This means there is a non-profit and for-profit side, but both are aimed at socially and environmentally responsible goals. The non-profit is Plant Chicago, NFP, which is dedicated to promoting sustainable food production, entrepreneurship, and building reuse through research, education, and development (as stated above). Plant Chicago will own and operate most of the aquaponic farm space, the shared kitchen, conduct research, and offer educational programming. Plant Chicago is applying for federal tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and expects to receive it sometime in 2012. The building itself (The Plant) is owned and operated by Bubbly Dynamics, L.L.C., which is in turn owned by John Edel.
Until we put up all a case study of our technical and financial information (an outline will go up by the end of 2012 and the full thing will be posted around 2016), we suggest you check out the FAQ and Press pages to learn more about the details of our operations. You can also learn more about our Staff, Current Tenants, The Plant’s Farm, and The Plant’s Shared Kitchen. Think you might want to start a business at The Plant? Find out more about available space.