I am in the basement of a former meat-processing plant deep in the Back of The Yards, watching a school of tilapia swim to and fro. Across the room are rows and rows of growing lettuce, Swiss chard and other leafy vegetables.
The fish don’t know it, but they’re assisting in the plants’ fertilization process. The water in which they swim is rich in nutrients — thanks to their by-products — that will fertilize the indoor farm.
Welcome to The Plant (1400 West 46th Street), a 95,000 square foot home to new businesses that engage in sustainable farming and food production in urban Chicago. They include Greens & Gills, an aquaponics company, a kombucha brewing facility, Peerless Bread and Jam, Pleasant House Bakery, and for good measure, an indoor mushroom farm. A commercial-grade shared kitchen is in the works, and later this year another brewery. This one to make beer.
John Edell, an environmentally conscious Chicago developer, purchased the former Peer Foods pork processing facility three years ago for $500,000. The 1920’s-era structure was fairly grungy and considered a “rip-and-strip” property. City officials assumed Edell would remove and sell off any usable material then tear down the building and erect something new.
Edell had other ideas, though. He had already opened another smaller facility, the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, at 37th Street and Morgan which houses a bicycle frame building business, a small tools manufacturer and other tenants engaged in sustainable business practices. The Plant is doing the same thing, but on a larger scale, with businesses tied to sustainable foods.
The Plant intends to limit waste to nearly zero by using a giant gloppita-gloppita machine* known as a digester, which will break down organic matter into liquid and solid fuels to help power the building.
“We want to create as little waste as possible,” said Shelby Phillips, program manager of The Plant. “From waste, we can create energy to heat and power the building. The fish waste is converted to nitrates and nitrites to support the agriculture in the building.”
The Plant also intends to be an incubator, welcoming small craft manufacturers of sustainable foods. The shared kitchen will benefit small-food producers.
The City of Chicago doesn’t make it easy for a startup food business, which often faces a barrage of rules and regulations. The shared kitchen in The Plant will meet those codes and offer a facility for cooks who can rent the space by the hour.
*Extra credit if you knew this obscure reference to the Jack Lemmon movie, “How To Murder Your Wife.”