How Urban Farming Took Root Everywhere

How Urban Farming Took Root Everywhere



Published On 03/22/2017


Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood was once one of the most industrialized areas in America, where stockyards and factories were manned by thousands of working-class immigrants. It’s the setting of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. But today, inside a 93,500-square foot former meatpacking plant there, kale, swiss chard, tomatillos, and oregano grow in vertically stacked trays, nourished by water from a nearby tank of tilapia. There are two additional hydroponic farms growing greens, plus a brewery, bakery, a mushroom farm, an artisan cheesemaker, honeybees on the roof, and a fresh flower farm. In total, there are 12 food-producing tenants in the gigantic, industrial space.

Unlike the neighborhood’s original pork-based economy, this new microscale ecosystem is working towards conducting business without letting a single item go to waste.


The Plant, as the facility is known, is considered a “collaborative community of food producing businesses” that work together inside the former meatpacking plant to not only grow and produce food -- but to create a “closed loop” system for energy, waste, and materials. Meaning that everything is reused: spent grains from the brewery are formed into briquettes to fuel the bakery ovens, coffee grounds from the roastery inside are used to help nourish the mushroom soil. At The Plant, that closed loop system is managed by not-for-profit group Plant Chicago.

Plant Chicago staff also teach the public about this closed loop, circular economy through tours, education programs, and a year-round farmer’s market.

“It is much more than an urban farm,” Kassandra Hinrichsen, education and outreach manager for Plant Chicago says. “It’s kind of like a movement, or a weird experiment.”

It’s not just about providing fresh vegetables

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations reports that 800 million people practice some form of urban agriculture worldwide, even though it’s illegal in several countries. The USDA doesn’t keep formal stats on urban farming in the United States, but in 2016 it funded about a dozen urban farms, the largest in the agency’s history, according to Business Insider. Even more loans and grants are expected to be given out to urban farmers in the United States this year.

But urban farming isn’t a new phenomenon for America’s cities. In the 1970s, community gardens sprang up in vacant lots in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, and San Francisco -- providing not only a place to grow fresh vegetables, but also a way for urban communities to organize. In 1993, Will Allen purchased a piece of land in Milwaukee so he could sell vegetables from his nearby farm to people in the North Side neighborhood. He then started farming food right in the city -- a project that would become Growing Power, one of the first urban farm projects in the country. In 2009, the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Greenpoint opened, becoming New York City’s first commercial rooftop farm. But in the eight years since, as more people have a desire to eat local foods within urban areas, the trend has stretched far beyond Brooklyn.

An increasing number of farms are taking on innovative projects that do much more than just provide food. Like Plant Chicago, for instance, which is charged with researching ways to reduce waste and reuse it at the farm, as well as conducting outreach with the neighboring community.

One of the largest endeavors, which is the brainchild of The Plant’s founder, John Edel, will be to use an anaerobic digester tank to heat the entire facility, rather than electricity or gas. Once it’s online, the energy system will be able to process 30 tons of food waste a day in the same way a human stomach does. It will break down the waste into liquid, biogas, and a high-nutrient solid. The solid and liquid will be sold to soil companies as a compost, while the biogas will be used to heat the building.

Plant Chicago staff and volunteers are also responsible for maintaining the aquaponics farm at The Plant -- a system where plants grow in water and receive the nutrients they would normally get from soil via waste created by fish. The plants, in turn, filter the water for the fish. This sort of farming has become increasingly popular in Chicago, with several for-profit and non-profit farms popping up around the city, in everything from warehouses to classrooms.

“In Chicago in the last couple of years, there has been a crazy bump in indoor farming, like hydroponics and aquaponics facilities,” Hinrichsen says. “Hopefully, indoor farming and those kinds of systems are becoming more accessible to folks, because the point of Plant Chicago is to be open sourced as well, and to show that you don’t necessarily have to have a bunch of money and crazy investors and a business degree to start something like this.”

Farm-to-table is eating better, which is the best way of living better. Fresh food will revitalize your spirits as well as your body -- even in the heart of a city. To reward yourself for living so well, open a bottle of Strongbow cider, and let the crisp and refreshing orchard taste come to you.

What we can grow in cities, and how we use it, is changing

Elsewhere, in Chicago, another company looks to turn the city’s world-famous architecture green.

Thanks to the laughably high prices of land in some cities, urban farmers looked to city roof tops as a potential growing site for their farms early on. But, while they may be more affordable, growing edible crops on a roof comes with it’s own set of problems.

“If you’re trying to grow food in a completely foreign environment, where you don’t have nutritious substates, when you don’t have reliable water, when you have extreme temperatures -- extreme cold and extreme heat -- that’s like Mars, and that’s pretty much what it’s like to grow on a rooftop,” says Molly Meyer, the CEO and founder of Omni Ecosystems, a green roof company based in Chicago.

Meyer’s company developed a green roof system that could allow plants to thrive, despite the harsh conditions. Their green roof technology supporting edible crops is not only lightweight, but includes intuitive irrigation systems. Automated watering systems are linked up to weather stations or rain sensors, to make sure the crops aren’t being watered when rain is in the forecast.

Meyer founded Omni Ecosystems in 2009, but she had worked with green roofs for years previously, and installed her first green roof in 2006 atop True Nature Foods in Chicago. She continued studying green roof tech in Germany as a Robert Bosch Fellow. Germany implemented green roof technology decades back, so Meyer’s experience there amply prepared her to start a company in the United States.

Omni has installed dozens of green roofs from Boston to San Francisco, as well as the vertical gardens known as “living walls” and subterranean barriers so that crops may be planted safely above contaminated earth. It also manufactures its own soil. But at first, Meyer says the trend was slow moving -- thanks in part to how long it takes for buildings to be designed and constructed.

“The construction industry, and the building industry in general, is very slow industry to change,” she says. “It takes maybe a year to design a building, and a year to build a building. And so, you have a couple years just for one site to change over. Now, we’re really starting to get a clip going. We’re starting to see some snowballing effects. People have seen the technology now, they are recommending and referring it, and applying it.”

Most of their edible crop rooftop farms produce the usual stuff: leafy greens, tomatoes, peppers, etc. But, just last year they were able to grow an entire wheat field in the middle of downtown Chicago -- and it was practically unintentional.

Omni was hired to build a native wildflower meadow on top of the Studio Gang Architects’ rooftop on Division Street. But the construction schedule was pushed into the fall, forcing them to grow a hardy annual plant that could protect the soil. They chose winter wheat, with no intention of harvesting an entire rooftop of the stuff.

“Then, we came back in the spring and lo and behold, there was a wheat field in the middle of downtown Chicago,” Meyer said. “I don’t think any of us were expecting to see a wheat field 40 feet up from one of the busiest intersections in Chicago.”

They enlisted Omni’s sister company, the Roof Crop (which Meyer also co-founded), as well as student volunteers, to harvest the 3,000 square feet of wheat by hand. A nearby miller donated his time and milled the harvested wheat into about 60 pounds of high-grade pastry flour. (He even rewarded the students with cookies.)

But besides the experience, Meyers was able to walk away with a clear ratio for how much wheat can be produced on a rooftop: for every 50 square feet of green roof that’s harvested, they’ll get about a pound of flour.

“Now that we have that metric, we can start looking at cities in completely different ways,” she said. “When building owners need just another incentive to do the thing that is great for a city -- bringing plants to a city -- this is one that can now be measured. We can say, ‘well, actually, if you chose to do wheat, and you harvested it for 20 years, every year you would get X pounds of flour, which could turn into X loaves of bread, or X bottles of beer."

Urban farming extends to food deserts... and real deserts

In South Phoenix, there isn’t a regular farmer’s market, and getting to a grocery store can mean a serious trek. That means the 4,711 residents in this part of town don’t have access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods. The area is officially designated a food desert by the USDA, but one project, called Spaces of Opportunity, is planning to change that.

With the help of several area nonprofits known as Cultivate South Phoenix, the Desert Botanical Garden, and a local elementary school, 18 vacant acres in the region are set to become working farmland and a community center for arts and healthy living programming.

“The whole point of the project is to keep as much healthy produce in the community as we possibly can,” says Nicolas de la Fuente, the project’s manager.

Eighteen acres is roughly the size of two New York City blocks, and 9.5 acres will be divided into “incubator farms.” Those spaces will be used as production farming space for people who want to make a serious living off the food they grow. Then, there’s 1.5 acres of community garden space, with plots that are about 4ft x 50ft.

“It’s funny when I say ‘community gardening,’” de la Fuente says. “At 1.5 acres it’s almost rural farming, it’s not like the boxes you see in other cities.”

There are currently four incubator farmers growing and selling winter vegetables, like spinach, collard greens, and kale, in the space. In the next few months, they will switch over to summer season crops: squash, peppers, tomatoes, and watermelons.

To water the crops, de la Fuente says they are planning to install a drip irrigation system. That will help the farmers conserve water, as well as substantially increase their output. Despite the desert conditions, the area was also once rich farmland, known for growing citrus and flowers. The Hohokam Canal system, which was one of the world’s largest canal systems, ran through the area, too.

“It’s actually a super rich agricultural center, that’s just been little by little developed with infill,” de la Fuente says. “So we aren’t necessarily doing anything new. We’re just essentially trying to bring back what was there and embrace the roots of the community.”

Spaces of Opportunity just received enough funding to fully connect to water and power, and their next endeavor is to build out the farmer’s market -- which will be the first in South Phoenix.

There’s still more work to do

Annie Novak has been the farm manager at Greenpoint’s Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn, NY since 2010, and she planted the first seeds on the farm with Ben Flanner in 2009. Since she became farm manager, she’s taught 100 people through an apprenticeship program who are looking to start an agriculture project of their own -- be it starting a small garden on top of their restaurant, or raising grass fed cattle in Texas.

“There’s a lot going on around the country, and internationally,” Novak says. “I feel like New York City leads with press, but I don’t know if we lead with acreage or initiative. Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, LA to a degree, Milwaukee, Austin -- these are all places that have really successful urban farming programs. So we definitely are not alone.”

While farming is clearly a hard job, Novak says operating a farm in a city provides a lot of opportunities. They are close enough to their markets to meet buyers face to face. There are several restaurants seeking out fresh produce, and there are minimal transportation costs.

Besides the expansion of urban farming, one of the most vital changes she’s seen is that cities, and even the USDA, are beginning to support these initiatives. Urban farms are also getting included in conversations about the importance of green spaces in cities, and in particular how to protect them.

“There always seems to be an ebb and flow in the way cities embrace urban agriculture,” she says. “So I’m just trying to think ahead. What happens when everyone who started a rooftop farm when they were 22 decides they want to know what’s next?”

To protect the work that’s already been done, Novak hopes that cities like New York will start zoning some urban farms as agricultural property, which would ensure that the area remains a space for farming. In New York, there’s only one agriculturally zoned property: The Queens County Farm Museum, and it’s been a working farm since before New York City even existed.

“Why has nobody ever turned Central Park into a condo?” Novak asks from her bike, which is her sole form of transportation around the city. “Well, there are legal reasons why. But we could do the same thing for farms.”

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