by J.R. Plate

Photography by Elaine Melko
The back of the Yards neighborhood located on Chicago’s south side is an area of the city that run deep with history. This neighborhood was the epicenter of the meat packing industry that supplied the United States with its beef, pork and poultry from the late 19th century until the 1970s. The award winning novel, The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair tells the somewhat dramatized story of the industry and some of the unsavory experiences workers encountered. Although the area used to be a focus for novelists, activists and social scientists throughout the 20th century it now stands as a mere shell of its former self. Abandoned buildings, poverty and crime are the status quo for the Back of the Yards today. However, John Edel, the director of a project called The Plant, is looking to revitalize not only the local economy and community in this neighborhood, but to also create what could become the most unique food production and sustainability business incubator in the country.
Upon first reading about The Plant I figured John Edel would be someone with a larger than life personality as it only seemed appropriate for this size project. Interestingly, his tall wiry frame, cool demeanor and modest aura did not fit this preconceived notion. However, his passion for promoting sustainability and this project are what bring him to life. John got his start in 2002 when he purchased a rundown building on Chicago’s southwest side and started Bubbly Dynamics LLC. Bubbly Dynamics has since been renamed the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, “an incubator for emerging enterprise appropriate to a new industrial city,” as the website reads. This concept was created to support boutique manufacturing that was experiencing resurgence in Chicago. The Plant was initially conceptualized to become a second phase of Bubbly Dynamics. However, because the space had always been a food processing building and has a “food grade” infrastructure, John felt that maintaining the building’s food focus was the best option.
John Edel

Photo by Elaine Melko / John Edel

Driving up to the property that is The Plant, the 93,000-square foot building, which occupies roughly two-thirds of the three-acre parcel, is the main attraction.

Looking up at the faded paint sign, which reads “Peer Foods,” is an instant reminder of the history that lies within this building. Originally, the building was a meat packing facility that was built in 1925 by the Buehler Brothers, who were second-generation butchers from Germany. Their father, Christian Buehler Sr., immigrated to Philadelphia in 1849 and eventually settled in Chicago to utilize his meat cutting skills in the bourgeoning industry. The Plant property was established to process meat for the Buehler Brothers’ meat markets throughout Chicago. In 1944 the plant changed names from Buehler Brothers to Peer Foods Products. Throughout Peer Foods’ history, it has offered a variety of products in addition to their famous smoked ham, bacon and pastrami.

One business’ ‘trash’ or waste can be another business’ treasure

Entering The Plant, the smoky aroma is an instant reminder of the building’s history. The scent hits the back of your nose and pallet in the same way barbecue does when you enter a restaurant or walk through a neighborhood when people are grilling in the summertime. However, the decades of smoking meats conjures up different images than the aforementioned examples due to the cavernous space that is primarily comprised of concrete and steel. The industrial nature of the meat processing business is evident due to remaining signs that read “Meat Wash,” “Carelessness is Dangerous” and “Brine.” The industrial and sterile nature of the building is quickly changing thanks to the efforts of John and the countless hours being dedicated by volunteers. John’s vision for The Plant has the potential to change the way we look at farming, food production, waste stream management as well as the disconnect our country has with how and where our food comes from. “The goal is that nothing leaves The Plant but food,” explains John during our interview.

On the surface this seems straightforward; on the contrary, what goes into growing, producing and delivery of our food is quite astonishing. There are many components and resources that go into food production for even the simplest of items. Some of these components and resources are water, fertilizer, fuels such as diesel, and warehousing.

Photo by Elaine Melko

Photo by Elaine Melko / Unique food production

Take a tomato for example. When we go to our grocery store we see a nice ripe tomato and we buy it. However, to get that tomato to our store takes an amazing amount of energy and resources.

First, the tomato is probably grown in a place such as California. The farm where this tomato is produced inevitably uses some sort of chemical fertilizer. Non-organic fertilizers use a large amount of petroleum-based chemicals for their production. Additionally, the fertilizer must get to the farm where it is needed, thus resources are expended in transportation. Second, we tend to grow items like tomatoes in semi-arid locales such as California for their abundance of sunshine. Unfortunately, this abundance of sunshine means an absence of water. To properly water these crops, large irrigation systems must be employed. The vast majority of irrigation systems use diesel engines to pump the necessary quantities of water over these large expanses of land. This results in the obvious use of fossil fuels (diesel) as well as water. Next, once the tomatoes are harvested they are generally shipped prior to ripening, as they would end up rotting in transit from California before reaching a store. Therefore, they end up in a warehouse specifically used for grocery stores where produce is stored until it’s ripened to the point of delivery to a store. These warehouses also  require a tremendous amount of resources to be built as well as operated and maintained. The final step the tomato takes to our store is on a truck, which uses more fuel along with other resources for operation.

Food Incubation

Photo by Elaine Melko / Food Incubation

This is a long and exhausting list of steps for us to enjoy something as simple as a ripe tomato. The above model does not take into account other possible negative environmental impacts of farming. Some of these may include contamination of nearby fresh water supplies due to the use of chemical fertilizers or poor air quality from the shipping. Additionally, this example is for fresh produce, not for a processed food such as a baked, cooked or packed goods. These items add another dimension to the waste stream and resource demand needed for us to access food. John’s vision for The Plant looks to eliminate virtually all of these waste streams along with unnecessary resource use. The Plant will mitigate the use of these resources by implementing a “Net Zero Energy Strategy.”

The Plant will effectively use the waste from one business’s processes and utilize it for either energy production across the building or for direct production for another food product. John has chosen a variety of food businesses based on the resources they need for production in relationship to the waste they produce. Ultimately, one business’s “trash” or waste can be another business’s’ “treasure” or resources needed for production. A perfect example of this on a small scale is the aquaponics system that has been implemented by 312 Aquaponics. Aquaponics is a sustainable food growing system that utilizes aquaculture (the raising of aquatic animals such as fish) with hydroponics (growing plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. Simply put, the dirty water from the fish tanks is circulated in a closed loop system to the various vegetable and herbs that are being grown. The plants use the fish “waste” which is nutrient rich as fertilizer and then return the dirty water back to the fish tanks clean and free of pollutants. This one example ties into a much more complex system throughout the building. One of the other key components of the The  Plant’s net zero system is the implementation of an anaerobic digester.

An anaerobic digester takes organic waste such as food scraps or manure and recovers one or more byproducts such as methane and uses it as fuel. Brewing beer is a fairly energy intensive process and ultimately creates a large waste stream. Thus, New Chicago Brewing has been chosen as one of the businesses for The Plant. Some of their waste stream, including hops, barley and malt, that is left over from the brewing process. All of this waste can be fed into the anaerobic digester and as it biodegrades, it will produce two main byproducts, carbon dioxide and methane.

The carbon dioxide can be captured and used as a nutrient for the indoor vertical farms and the methane can be burned as fuel to create heat. This heat will be utilized for temperature control in greenhouses and general heating of the building. Additionally, the heat from the digester can also be used to cool the building using a process called absorption chilling.

Along with the net zero model for food production, The Plant is also repurposing the vast majority of all the reclaimed materials the building has yielded during its deconstruction phase. Items such as stainless steel, brick, tile, pipes, wiring for electrical along with other materials will all be reused during the construction phase. Any items that cannot be used will be taken to a local recycling center for processing and reuse. At the end of the day, The Plant will throw away a paltry two Dumpsters’ worth of non-usable material. The Plant will also be taking a variety of steps to insure the building is as energy efficient as possible such as installing dozens of windows with a high R value. These windows will be strategically placed throughout the building to utilize the sun’s light for growing and heating purposes.
The Plant will also utilize outdoor space for food production. Final plans for the outdoor space are still being determined but there are talks to include an orchard, a community garden and a growing laboratory for educational and experimentation purposes. Some of the other food-based businesses slated to be a part of The Plant include a bakery, an ice cream company, a mushroom farm, a kombucha tea maker and a community kitchen. The community kitchen will be available for local entrepreneurial residents to use as a resource to kick start their own food business. In total, The Plant will create approximately 145 full time jobs once fully operational.John Edel and The Plant are poised to create a food production model that will not only help to revive a struggling community in Chicago, but also demonstrate that there are far more sustainable ways to produce and deliver food. One can only hope that the success of this endeavor will serve as a model for other cities around the country that are embracing sustainability. Although this project seems like a “nice” challenge to undertake, John put it best during our interview: “We don’t have any other choice if we hope to be able to feed the growing population of the world. If we don’t start embracing a new way of food growing and production we are going to be in big trouble.”