Inside An Old Chicago Packing Plant, Inspiring Proof That Urban Indoor Farming Can Succeed

At The Plant, a group of food businesses runs in awe-inspiring harmony. A fish farm fertilizes the plants. A new brewery supplies carbon dioxide to help plants grow. And refuse from the cheesemaker feeds a digester that powers the whole operation.

Four years ago, entrepreneur John Edel bought a sprawling vacant factory in Chicago and decided to turn it into a vertical farm that produces everything from fish to salad greens to beer. Now, Edel says the experiment is proving that urban indoor farming can work: His venture provides local food and recycles local waste, all while turning a profit.


Edel originally started The Plant as a way to reclaim empty space that no one else wanted. “I had been looking for ways to reuse vacant and derelict industrial buildings,” he says. “Modern manufacturing isn’t really interested in being in a 100-year old multi-story structure, but plants and fish don’t really care what floor they’re on.”

By carefully curating a group of food businesses–from actual farms to commercial kitchens and food manufacturers–he was able to create a series of loops to reuse waste. A fish farm fertilizes plants, grow lights over salad greens provide waste heat for the building, and a new brewery will soon provide waste carbon dioxide to help plants grow. Waste from other businesses, like a new cheesemaker and a nonprofit that grows kitchen gardens for schools, will soon go into a huge anaerobic digester that will help power the whole building.

When the digester is completed later this year, the building will also start taking on more food waste from the neighborhood to turn it into power. “We’ll eventually be consuming about 30 tons of food waste per day from local food businesses like grocery stores and breweries,” Edel says.

“When you do this sort of thing in the middle of the city–there are about 9 million people in the metro area–you have endless amounts of waste to pull from, and it doesn’t have to go very far,” he adds. “That’s a huge savings in labor and diesel.”

The businesses inside are quickly growing. Greens and Gills, a business that produces salad greens and herbs along with fish, has expanded rapidly since it moved into the building. “They had to double their production space because of demand, which effectively proves the concept of growing 100% under artificial light in a building,” Edel says. “They’re one of the first to do this at a big scale.”

Though Edel wasn’t interested in running a food business himself, he wanted to use the building as a space to incubate other food startups. “I see it as one of the most difficult businesses to be in–with financial, regulatory, and licensing barriers to entry,” he says. “I was looking for a way to help those businesses through one of the harder parts of that transition–the physical space.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.