Chicago's First Self-Sustaining Vertical Farm Operation

Photo by Rachel Senie, The Plant, Chicago

Is it possible to create a food production plant in a metropolitan city in which the energy used to power the very large, former meat processing facility is created entirely from its own waste and that of its nearby neighbors? Chicago entrepreneur and Executive Director of The Plant, John Edel, believes it is entirely possible.

Part food-business incubator, part vertical farm and part research and education space, Edel’s ambitious vision began in 2010. Armed with an arts background, he admits he likes to look at ways in which he can repurpose derelict buildings into productive projects.

Aptly named “The Plant,” the 93,500-square-foot former slaughterhouse that once brought red meat to the marketplace is now home to several urban farms—including aquaponic and hydroponic vegetable farms, a mushroom garden and a tilapia fish-raising farm—as well as beer and Kombucha tea breweries. Future plans include space for bakers and caterers that will work together in a communal kitchen.

Edel’s goal is to create a model that supports small businesses, creating approximately 125 skilled job opportunities. He intends to do this all in a self-sustaining manner, so it creates zero waste in the process.

“By being mindful of who will be sharing The Plant’s space, we can ensure that one business will feed off of the other, literally, inching it closer to becoming a net-zero waste environment,” Edel says. “Spent grains from the beer microbrewery will feed the tilapia. The waste produced by the fish will feed the mushroom garden or be converted into nitrates to feed the hydroponic plants. Those plants will clean the water through natural processes and be cycled back into the fish tanks. Taken together, the system will make the building completely self-sustainable.”

The Plant Chicago

Edel also plans to move The Plant completely off the utility grid by the summer of 2013. An anaerobic digester (similar to a waste-eating mechanical “stomach” that takes organic or septic waste and produces biogas) is in the initial phase of installation. The digester will consume all of the building’s waste, as well as waste from nearby neighbors, creating methane gas to be burned in a jet engine that can power The Plant.

“The city of Chicago has helped us in a small way financially,” says Edel. “But it’s also helped us with licensing issues. The framework for what we’re doing doesn’t exist, so they are working with us to get permits and things that we need to move things along.”

The Plant also is supported by $1.5 million in grant money from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. To help educate the general public, the staff provides scheduled tours, offers lectures and maintains outreach programs and demonstrations for the local community to show them how to grow food in various urban environments.

Location: 1400 W. 46 St., Chicago. For more information, please visit

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