In Chicago and all over the world, urban farmers are realizing that the most accessible real estate is what's above them, as the large swaths of acres of land are not available in the city like they are in rural areas. For long-term sustainability and to reduce waste, cost and transport, people are looking into closed-loop food production systems housed indoors using vertical space instead of horizontal.
Businessweek magazine has ranked the vertical farm as one of its top 20 businesses of the future, and leading the charge is The Plant in Chicago, which opened this summer.
Created by entrepreneur John Edel, this former meatpacking factory is now home to a nascent fish and vegetable farm, along with several small food businesses. It’s an innovative solution, based on a principle known as aquaponics, where everything exists to work together. Tilapia fish waste is high in ammonia which nourishes the plants; the plants clean the water, which can then be returned to the fish. The businesses within the building work in symbiosis, too. So, waste from the brewery provides the perfect growing material for the mushroom farm.
All the building’s energy needs will come from an onsite biodigester, producing methane to fuel a combined heat and power plant. The digester will consume all the building’s food waste, as well as taking some from neighbouring food manufacturers. The Plant was recently awarded a $1.5 million grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to develop the energy system.
Currently in phase one of development, The Plant plans to be fully operational, with a net income of $300,000 from food sales and business rents, by 2016.
The technology was developed with the aid of students at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and their professor, Blake Davis. He was particularly attracted to Edel’s entrepreneurial approach. “I agreed to work with John because he indicated that he wanted to build a profitable vertical farming business,” he said. “Representatives of The Plant have visited almost all of the vertical farming enterprises within 500 miles, and the vast majority of these do not have a sustainable business model. They are either not profitable, or they are only profitable because of [government support].”To help spur entrepreneurial as well as vertical farmers, The Plant will host a full business case study online, including all financial information and a complete technical spec.
Slowly but surely, vertical farms are taking shape elsewhere in the world. In Britain, urban farm Alpha is in development in a derelict tower block in Wythenshawe, Manchester. The brainchild of local sustainability groups URBED and Creative Concern, it aims to produce lettuce, tomatoes, vegetables and even chickens, bees and fish in time for the city’s International Festival in 2013. The ancient walled city of Suwon in South Korea already has a working model in a small, three-storey building. Vertical farms are also being planned for Paris, Abu Dhabi, Bangalore, Beijing and New York.
This article originally appeared in Green Futures, the magazine of independent sustainability experts Forum for the Future.