The 93,500-square foot building in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood once housed the Peer Foods meatpacking factory. Day after day, men gathered to process slaughtered pigs and turn them into sausage, ham steaks, and other cuts for grocery stores all over the country. When Peer Foods relocated to Indiana in 2006, taking 400 jobs with it, the building sat vacant for years. No one knew what to do with it: The meatpacking industry was gone, and the building would be too expensive to fully retrofit for a new purpose.
But when John Edel, an industrial designer, bought the whole building for just $525,000 in 2010, he had a plan in mind. He would turn the desolate, rundown factory into a thriving vertical farm.
“The building was too rundown for modern manufacturing, but it’s just fine for farming,” he says. “Plants don’t care what floor they’re on.”
He already knew it could be done. His company, Bubbly Dynamics, had previously purchased a derelict paint warehouse and converted it into a sustainable manufacturing plant. Today, that factory is a thriving enterprise, the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, which houses a diverse range of businesses including a tutoring program, a custom screen printing company, several bike-related businesses, and a metal artist.
Edel wanted to do the same thing with The Plant, but focused specifically around the possibilities offered by food and farming to build a fully sustainable, self-contained business enterprise.
For the last two years, he and his team have been working to bring that vision to life.
The building, renamed The Plant, now houses a basement-level hydroponic farm, where the staff grows swiss chard, basil, arugula, and other plants and herbs, which are sold to local markets and cafes. Next to that, a series of tanks house tilapia fish. The fish waste is used to provide nutrients to the plants. The plants filter out the waste, producing clean water that can then be used to refill the fish tanks. “Each solves the problem of the other,” says Edel.