Seeds of Change: Vertical Farming Comes to the South Side

When the global population first entered the billions, Napoleon was reshaping Europe, Beethoven and Haydn were contemporary musicians and the cutting edge in technology was the steamship. That population would double sometime between the World Wars and by the turn of the millennium, humanity numbered over six billion. Of course, we’re not done; estimates suggest that by the year 2050, a world census could come in somewhere between nine and ten billion.

This trend has dire consequences for climate change, energy needs, pollution and water usage. But perhaps most troubling are the prospects for food production. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, around 80% of the world’s arable land is already in use. Short of the discovery of a new continent the size of Brazil, there simply won’t be enough space to grow crops for our ever increasing population.

With no room to spread out, the only option is up. Multi-story buildings and skyscrapers have revolutionized commercial, residential and manufacturing spaces in the last century. While it would take plenty of engineering, capital funding and trial and error, who’s to say the same can’t be true of agriculture?

Greenhouses have been around for centuries, but large scale, vertical farming is a much newer concept. It may have first emerged in the same mid-century thought experiments that promised us lunar vacations and personal jetpacks. Real discussions and design proposals brought the prospect closer to reality after Dickson Despommier, a professor of microbiology and ecology at Columbia University, developed the idea with his graduate students in 1999.

Now, on Chicago’s south side, this concept is finally close to reality. The team behind the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center (CSMC) (see Innovation Incubation) is in the development stages of The Plant, the world’s first true vertical farm.

The Plant will occupy a three-story, 95,000 SF former meat processing plant in Back of the Yards. More than half that space, all on the upper floors and roof, will be dedicated to aquaponics, aeroponics, greenhouses and other agriculture space.

Central to the farming space in The Plant will be the elaborate yet simple aquaponics system. The first component will be tanks of tilapia. Tilapia are ideal for culturing due to their docility, rapid growth rate, palatability and their willingness to eat virtually anything. Once the fish waste—mostly ammonia—runs through a clarifier, it will be introduced to beneficial bacteria to create nitrates. This water, now rich with organic material, will then be pumped to a series of growing beds.

The plants in these beds rest in a clay bead medium, which reduces pest and soil-based disease problems. Using a series of bell siphons, the plants will extract the nitrates as food, effectively filtering the water before returning it to the fish tanks to complete the system. Everything that leaves the loop is edible, be it vegetable or fish.

Another plan calls for an aeroponics system. In this design, foam beds float vegetable plants above ten inches of water. Fish-supplied nutrients are kept in suspension. Arduino microcontrollers will monitor water and air temperatures, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, lighting conditions, nutrient levels and other factors. These microcontrollers can then open the switch on a pump, fan, light or other mechanical system to get the levels back into range for maximum efficiency.

The roof will house an 8,000 SF greenhouse and a small orchard. None of these techniques are new. The innovation lies in scale. No one has yet attempted to bring a concerted operation of this size to market, in Chicago or anywhere.

The Plant won’t be starting up blind. Since August 2009, students from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), under the guidance of professor Blake Davis, have been testing the feasibility of the aquaponics and aeroponics systems. These small scale tests have not only taught the students, but influenced what designs and strategies will go into the vertical farm.

“It’s been successful in that we’ve learned an awful lot of stuff and we know what to abandon and what not to abandon,” said Edel. The organic matter in the water clogged the smaller pipes in the aeroponics sprinklers, for example. The bell siphons have been modified, as have the ammonia and pH levels in the water.

The former meat processing plant is the ideal setting for a vertical farm. It has high ceilings, docks, vapor-tight light fixtures, aseptic wall coverings, stainless steel doors, refrigeration and floor drains throughout. Since the building was constructed to U.S. Department of Agriculture certification standards, it will be easier to obtain licenses and to pass food safety inspections than if those features needed to be introduced.

“Part of the idea behind the vertical farm is trying to come up with ways to reuse these buildings in this location because they’re so well located, so central, so solid in so many places,” said John Edel, the principal of Bubbly Dynamics and the main force behind both CSMC and The Plant. “No matter how derelict they look, they’re not. They’re still very usable.”

While designs for new, sleek, fifty story skyfarms have piqued the public’s interest in the last few years, that idea is currently unfeasible. The technology is too new to profitably construct such massive structures. “The farm isn’t going to make money for a long time,” says Edel, cognizant of the start-up costs involved. To get the operation off the ground, he plans to found a non-profit organization to solicit funding and volunteers. And while the farming component will be slow to return its investment, The Plant itself will be solvent immediately because part of the space will be leased to tenants. Expected lessees include a landscaping firm that manu¬fac- tures growing wall systems and sedum mats for green roofs and possibly a biodiesel company that will create fuel from spent fry oil.

A third tenant will be a new brewery, started by some of the talent behind Three Floyds. Microbreweries tend to be very progressive, but it’s hard to get around the energy requirements of brewing alcohol. Edel hopes that The Plant will provide a location where the new brewery can “out-sustainable Fat Tire and other companies.” For example, one unavoidable output of their operation will be spent distiller’s grains. While unfit for further alcohol production, these grains still have high nutritional and energy levels and could in theory be composted for the farming component of The Plant.

“Its all about closing the energy loops within the building.” Just as the tilapia and plants benefit each other in the aquaponics system, Edel expects the brewery and other companies to be more than leaseholders. “I’m trying to get tenants in the building that can either use waste from something we’re doing, or will produce waste that we can use in some way.”

By co-locating certain tenants, and carefully engineering utility systems, The Plant could also significantly lower energy use. Boiling a 1,000 gallon vat of water to make beer creates a lot of excess heat and humidity. Instead of letting it dissipate, that heat could be used to warm the fish tanks, and then to heat the work space. By the time all of this energy has been extracted, the water is ready to be reintroduced to the system.

Just as CSMC was, The Plant will be retrofitted using green processes. Wherever possible, construction materials will be pulled from the waste stream. The test beds in CSMC’s basement, for example, are illuminated by metal halide lamps Edel pulled from a factory renovation in Itasca for $10 each. Nighttime lighting of the large scale indoor farm might be accomplished by plasma lights. Currently one of the newest and most expensive lighting options on the market, plasma lights are unmatched in efficiency. At 140 lumens per watt, they are more efficient than LED lights, the projected next big thing in sustainable illumination. Each pill-sized bulb is capable of emitting 20,000 lumens at a color rendering and temperature approximate to that of the sun’s.

High oxygen output from the farm can be pumped into manufacturing areas for better air quality. Capturing waste heat for reuse elsewhere in the building will bring the operation closer to zero energy, but that goal seems far off. Zero waste, however, not only seems possible, but shortsighted; Edel expects The Plant to be negative waste. Trucks will carry the farm’s yield to local restaurants and produce distributors, and return with spoiled or otherwise unmarketable food. Through recycling, composting and anaerobic digestion, The Plant will not only be able to virtually eliminate its contribution to landfills, but lessen the waste impact of others.

One impediment to an operation this unique is the Chicago Municipal Code. “The code is totally silent on fish,” said Edel. “You can slaughter cows under the same zoning, you can smelt iron, you can crush and burn cars. There’s all this crazy stuff you can do under the same zoning, yet raising fish with no chemicals, in an organic, closed loop system that has no contact with the outside world is not permissible.” So long as IIT students are involved, the fish are part of a university experiment and therefore permissible. But Edel, his colleagues and various community groups are busy petitioning the city to broaden the zoning ordinance.

The ultimate goal of The Plant is to create sustainable food and energy systems in urban areas that can be reproduced at a grass roots level by others with few resources. That last part is important; like the Arduinos that will control the farming systems, everything The Plant does will be open source.

“There’s no such thing as being in competition when the market is so giant here. There’s no possible way that we could saturate any bit of it,” said Edel. “And so we really want everybody to be as successful as possible in doing this and producing high quality food locally.”

– Matt Baker

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