Vertical Farms0

Betsy Mikel | Tue Sep 6 2011 |

Is “The Plant” the future of agribusiness?

Melanie HoekstraOperations Manager at The Plant answers our questions

The Plant was once just another dilapidated building worth no more than the metal inside its walls. Now this former meatpacking plant is becoming Chicago’s first vertical farm and a food business incubator. Melanie Hoekstra, Operations Manager at The Plant, answers a few questions about how aquaponic farming and an anaerobic digester power the building and minimize waste.

One

How is vertical farming at The Plant different than the futuristic 3D renditions associated with vertical farms?

The problem with those renderings is that huge windows don’t make much sense outside the tropics. Any glass that lets sunlight in also lets heat out, resulting in an energy imbalance in cooler climates. So we’re growing plants in a highly insulated building under grow lights, but we’ll completely offset that energy use by installing an anaerobic digester and combined heat and power system.

Two

So the anaerobic digester plays a big role in powering The Plant?

Yep. Almost all of our waste will be from food, as we’ll have only food-related activities going on in the building like beer brewing, aquaponics, and food preparation. That waste, plus other brewing waste from nearby breweries, goes into the digester, where bacteria break it down into methane. We’ll burn the methane in the combined heat and power system, which is a big turbine that creates steam and electricity. This system makes us net-zero energy and net-negative waste.

Three

Many vertical farming models use aquaponics. Why was it a good fit for The Plant?

Aquaponics solves the problems with aquaculture (produces too much waste) and hydroponics (needs nutrient inputs) by hooking them together. It mimics an ecosystem and is more stable than either aquaculture or hydroponics.

Four

The Plant is very unique based on your specific resources and structure. Can these innovations be adapted for sustainable projects in other parts of Chicago and perhaps even other cities?

Absolutely. The very point of this project is to show there’s money to be made in collecting other people’s waste, turning it into a renewable energy source, and growing food–while also creating new jobs. We’ll eventually put everything about the project up on our website so others can learn and replicate The Plant elsewhere.