"Back to the Concrete": A Closer Look At Urban Farming In Chicago

 /  Jan. 12, 2016, 8:24 p.m.


Among the warehouses on Chicago’s South Side which once housed the “hog butchers of the world” stands The Plant, a warehouse that houses sustainable food business incubators that seek to “provide a model of responsible and sustainable urban industrial development.” Although The Plant seems to provide a back-to-land revival worlds away from the crowded slaughterhouses of Chicago’s meatpacking era, it is operated by Bubbly Dynamics, a for-profit business that has industrialized an anti-industrial movement—organic farming—with the goal of making organic products more affordable.

By the time the Gate arrived in The Plant’s small outdoor farm, the “Back of the Yards,” the  vibrant greens featured in images on Plant Chicago’s website were covered in snow. If it was hard to believe that anything could grow in the fading remains of a pork processing facility, it was nearly impossible to believe that any plants could survive a Chicago winter. And yet, fourteen different tenants inhabit The Plant, including a mushroom farm, a brewery, a kombucha fermenter, and a prawn grower.

The Plant has been in operation for about five years. After the pork processing facility that inhabited the warehouse closed in 2007, Bubbly Dynamics, which promotes business practices that minimize waste, bought the building in hopes of building on the success of their first sustainable business, the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center. The company intended for The Plant to be a “closed loop” system, meaning that it requires no outside energy input. Although The Plant currently needs significant amounts of energy to power the building, it is slowly moving towards a self-sustaining system of food production. The Plant already uses salt water from the tilapia it farms to help grow algae, which, along with  the spent grains from The Plant’s beer company, feeds the fish. In turn, the waste from the fish helps sustain the hydroponic plant farm. To move closer to self-sufficiency, the operators hope to introduce an anaerobic digester, which would break down biodegradable materials without using oxygen and allow the facility to use waste as fuel.    


The Plant cultivates a wide variety of crops, all from within what was once a pork processing facility.

Given The Plant’s accomplishments in its first few years of operation—renovating a deteriorating meat processing warehouse into a space that sustains fourteen businesses—it is difficult to imagine it as a work in progress. Yet that is exactly the impression that the warehouse conveys. On any given Saturday,sounds of hammers and drills reverberate throughout the warehouse as volunteers remove parts of walls and old pork processing equipment. Of course, the portions of the wall won’t land in some trash heap: they’ll be reused in the spirit of Bubbly Dynamics’ mission of sustainability. Examples of reuse abound throughout the warehouse, ranging from hospital lights now used as lamps to old meat freezers used as incubators for mushroom growth.

Still, despite the image of constant innovation, The Plant is part of a long history of farming movements with the purpose of bringing people “back to the land.” As Kristin Reynolds notes in Urban Agriculture as Revolution, it was recreating a “historical link between rural agriculture and urban areas as markets for farm products” that inspired urban farmers of the 60s and 70s. Before the 70s, urban farms primarily served emergency functions, with the goal of feeding or employing impoverished city residents. The movement of the 70s was markedly different, in that it arose in response to the industrialization of agricultural systems in the United States. After the publication of Rachel Carson’s 1962 exposé Silent Spring, more Americans became aware of the use of pesticides in farming practices. The combination of the Vietnam War, fears of a world food crisis, and the rise of the New Left sowed the seeds for a “back to the land” food production movement that focused on local and organic produce.

However, this focus on bringing individuals “back to the land,” rather than on the economic aspects of urban agriculture, became the Achilles’ heel of urban farming. Ultimately, the ideological underpinnings of agricultural movements are defenseless against the ever-shifting tides of the economy. Despite a resurgence of interest in sustainable and organic agriculture, sales at organic businesses have begun to wane as prices for these foods soar. Organic Avenue, a prominent New York health food store, recently closed its doors after enthusiasm for its products and the price of its goods began to diverge. “The biggest downfall of the organic movement is that it’s not affordable,” said Plant Chicago’s Education and Outreach Manager Kassandra Hinrichsen. “Until it becomes a norm for people to produce their food locally, people aren’t going to see the value in it.”

Ultimately, The Plant aims to help the urban agriculture movement survive by decreasing the marginal cost of production. “When a lot of people come here they think we’re advocating for aquaponics [the process of using fish excretions to grow plants]. I don’t think that is really true,” Hinrichsen said. “It’s really energy intensive,” she added. “Plant Chicago used to have a much larger farm but we had to scale back because it didn’t make much sense to grow this much food and use this much energy. We weren’t making enough money to sustain that type of farm.” The Plant has taken the first steps towards cheaper production by adopting a “social enterprise” business model, which aims to improve human and environmental well-being through commercial practices. In The Plant’s case, this has meant a focus on reusing waste and byproduct materials.


Plants growing hydroponically at The Plant.

The next step is to focus on lowering the cost of organic products, which would require organizations such as The Plant to further industrialize the movement. Industrialized agriculture does not necessarily imply a continued use of pesticides for plants and antibiotics for animals as it has in the past. In terms of organic urban agriculture, industrialization might mean prioritizing development over outreach and attempting to develop more efficient and productive systems. Aquaponics is not necessarily the most efficient system for growth, and use of the system resulted in The Plant scaling back the size of its farm. To take The Plant to the next level, Bubbly Dynamics will have to integrate more efficient mechanisms into their system. For instance, aquaponics might be replaced with another system, such as aeroponics, the process of growing plants in the air using mist.

If urban farms want to devote their energy to making organic food cheaper, they may have to replace their social entrepreneurship-style capitalization schemes with more traditional business models.. “If you are a traditional real estate developer you are much more heavily capitalized, you just try to make a lot of money really fast. This project is largely self funded [by] a lot of little bits of money pieced together,” said Bubbly Dynamics Construction Manager Alex Enarson. Although the Bubbly Dynamics’ unique funding model project allows it to experiment with its uses of capital, traditional funding model pressures businesses to increase efficiency and lower the prices of goods and services. Currently, many urban farming ventures, such as The Plant, are funded by government grants and donations rather than their profit margins. However, it is profit that drives quickened innovation.

Industrializing the urban agriculture movement could provide a number of benefits, beginning with increased food supplies. Currently, 12.9 percent of the world’s population is undernourished. Even populations that have access to fresh foods often opt for fast food. As of 2013, only 4 percent of the US population does not consume fast food, which tends to be a cheaper substitute for organic and local produce. In Chicago alone, close to 20 percent of individuals are food-insecure, meaning that they have uncertain access to adequate food. Feeding America released data in 2012 revealing that eight hundred thousand Greater Chicagoans are food-insecure, and in West Englewood alone the percentage of food-insecure individuals approaches 48 percent. Urban farming has the potential to make fruits and vegetables more appealing and accessible to growing, malnourished populations. However, achieving this goal may require businesses like The Plant to shift their product line. Today, urban agriculturists primarily focus on growing and making niche foods such as kombucha. A change in priority  from artisanal foods to mass-market fruit and vegetable production would allow urban farmers to provide a closer, cheaper alternative to rural farming and feed an ever-growing population. This form of production would not only benefit society, but would provide urban farmers with new markets outside of the small artisanal niche they currently inhabit.

Increased productivity will also make the urban farming movement, and in particular The Plant, more accessible to workers. The limited market for organic goods limits local organic farming operations’ need for employees. According to one of The Plant’s employees, after  the meat-processing company Peer Foods vacated The Plant’s warehouse in 2007, its four hundred employees, most of whom lived in Back of the Yards, were laid off. Currently, there are close to sixty people working at The Plant, which is just 40 percent of its capacity. While some Back of the Yards residents volunteer at The Plant Chicago, none of them are former Peer Foods employees. A need for more employees stimulated by an increased market size could provide greatly needed engagement with the community and economic benefits to South Side workers.

Ultimately, urban farming must find ways to be both idealistic and practical. The movement must win recognition from policy-makers and the public in order to survive and achieve the sustainable increase in the overall food supply that its proponents promise. The Plant is taking the first steps in realizing the full potential of urban farming. However, a revolution within the movement cannot lie solely on the back of one organization. The growth of the urban farming movement will force it to abandon inefficient production techniques, even if this involves shedding its “back to the land” image in favor of something more like “back to the concrete.”

The images featured in this article were taken by the author. 

Lauren Futter


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