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The Four-Story Farm

John Edel of Bubbly Dynamics is bringing vertical agriculture to the south side.

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It's been four years since any bacon or ham came out of the Peer Foods plant in Back of the Yards, but a vaguely meaty aroma still lingers in its echoing, mostly empty four floors. Due southwest of the erstwhile Packingtown gate, it was one of the last meat-processing plants from the heyday of the stockyards to close down. When the operation moved to Indiana in 2006, about 400 jobs went with it.

There are few practical uses for a building like that, and under normal circumstances it could sit derelict for years or be stripped and leveled at great expense. But if John Edel has his way, the Plant, as he's dubbed it, is going to house one of the world's first "vertical farms," growing fresh organic produce and serving as headquarters for a number of small food businesses.

Edel was the subject of a 2005 Reader cover story about the trials and tribulations of rescuing a decrepit 24,000-square-foot Bridgeport paint warehouse overrun by wild dogs and violent, racist bikers. An industrial designer and original member of the Rat Patrol, a crew that builds bicycles out of scavenged parts, he was intent on restoring the building using materials plucked from the waste stream. Today Bubbly Dynamics, aka the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, is fully occupied—by bicycle makers, artists, screen printers, metal fabricators, and a tutoring program for at-risk kids—and turns a profit for Edel, the landlord.

Edel says Bubbly Dynamics will serve as his "resumé," helping him win over the people and scrape together the money and matériel he needs to turn the Plant into a working farm. There's a vertical farm operating in Racine, Wisconsin, but vertical agriculture is still a largely theoretical discipline that aims to increase crop yields and reduce energy costs and climate change associated with traditional agriculture by building urban "farmscrapers" using proven agricultural methods such as hydroponics. The advantages are seductive: a year-round growing cycle, no weather-related crop failures, no agricultural runoff, no pests.

Some proponents suggest that slick, futuristic designs with prohibitive construction and energy-use costs are what have so far rendered the proliferation of such enterprises impractical. "You'd have to sell a lot of arugula to pay for a glass skyscraper," says Edel. "I think we need to walk before we can run."

He plans to develop the Plant the same way he did Bubbly Dynamics: "My model was, you do one space at a time," he says. "Get it rented, get the cash flow going so that you have enough money to do the next space and the next space, and then you have enough money to do the heavier stuff." One of the first tenants at the Plant will be a landscaper who builds living walls, vertical gardens that take the rooftop garden conceit one step further.

About a year ago Edel hooked up with Blake Davis, an adjunct professor in the Industrial Technology and Management program at IIT who was also searching for the right building to house a vertical farm. Davis set a multidisciplinary team of students to the task of designing a test aquaponics farm in the basement at Bubbly Dynamics—that is, a closed-cycle combination fish farm and hydroponic garden where the plants filter the water for the fish and the waste from the fish is converted to food for plants.

Currently there's a 275-gallon plastic tank burbling away in the basement of Bubbly Dynamics, filled with about 70 tilapia grown from fingerlings. The fish waste runs through a clarifier, where bacteria convert it into nitrites and nitrates, and the nutrient-rich water flows through the bottom of two growing beds where sweet basil, planted in a clay medium, sucks up the goodness. The water is finally pumped back to the fish, and the cycle repeats itself. Water and air, nutrient levels, and light from the metal halide light fixtures suspended above the plants are all monitored and continually adjusted by a computerized system.

Soon larger growing beds modeled on this prototype will move into the Plant. Edel closed on the four-story, 93,500-square-foot building last month. It has drains in the floors, aseptic glazed brick and fiberglass walls, large refrigerated areas, and a bank of loading docks, and above all, it was designed to meet USDA food-safety certification standards, which will make it a lot easier to obtain licensing for food production. It's an ideal place to house small start-up food businesses, like the ground-floor brewery one fellow's already raising funds for. (Attention small-scale artisanal charcutiers.)

Despite Edel's one-foot-in-front-of-the-other talk, this is a pretty ambitious project. Edel and his cohort want to operate part of the Plant as a not-for-profit 35,000-square-foot research farm, and will start installing some 20,000 square feet of growing beds on the plant's second floor in about two months. A different for-profit tenant, 312 Aquaponics, moves in at the end of the year and will set up a three-tiered aquaponics system. Fish that grow to market size will be processed in the basement, adjacent to a mushroom farm fertilized by waste products from the farm and brewery. With those, greenhouses on the roof, and more growing areas in the back lot, Edel wants to supply produce to other food businesses that move into the building as well as to external restaurants and wholesalers.

Some remnants of Peer's old business won't be much use, like the butchering knives Edel found stuck in walls all over the building or the barrels of Frankenfood-style barbecue sauce and sacks of sugar left on the loading docks. But a lot of stuff he can reuse, including $3 million industrial stainless steel smokers that can be cut up for scrap, the $250 metal halide light fixtures that will heat the growing beds, and giant sheets of fiber-reinforced plastic paneling that will become new partitions for growing beds and food production spaces.

Most ambitious of all are Edel's ideas about powering the Plant—with a closed-loop system operating at zero net energy. He wants to use waste heat from, say, the brewery or the heating lamps to power other parts of the building and install several anaerobic digesters that when fed with vegetable, fish, and brewery waste will produce biogas burned in a gas turbine-generator set.

"We need to share energy back and forth," he says. "The farm will not be efficient unless there is a place to send its waste products. The idea is food goes out and nothing else. Just food."   

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