John Edel: Vertical Farm Pioneer

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Photo Courtesy Courtesy Plant Chicago, NFP/Rachel Swenie
John Edel is the founder of The Plant—a net zero vertical farm/food business incubator, which is the first of its kind in the nation.

For most people, the term “vertical farm” conjures images of skyscraper-like structures built from stacks of terraced gardens reminiscent of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Ask John Edel what his ideal vertical farm looks like and he’ll sketch you a picture of an old meatpacking facility with plenty of brick and no natural light. Better yet, he’ll just hand you a photograph of The Plant–the Chicago-based vertical farm, which is the first of its kind in the nation. “Those are beautiful concepts, and they look great in renderings, but they don’t make sense from an energy standpoint at all,” said Edel of the elaborate concepts. “They definitely don’t make sense from a capital perspective. Farming is such a low margin business; you have to start with something that’s much less expensive.”

Edel did just that when he purchased the old Peer Foods Building for $525,000. For a food-grade building that’s nearly 100,000 square feet on three acres, Edel felt like he hit the jackpot. The building also had very little natural light, which is exactly what Edel was looking for. Recognizing that the natural light that came in would only reach about 15 feet into the space, Edel replaced the windows with energy efficient glass that’s primarily intended to keep heat in the building. His team has been successful in growing a wide variety of greens with a combination of different glow light systems.

In addition to indoor farming, The Plant hosts other food-related businesses that fit Edel’s vision of a self-contained energy system. “What’s important is that every human activity has waste products, and what we’re looking to do is pair those inputs and outputs between different processes that aren’t normally associated with each other,” said Edel. For example, the waste produced by the micro-brewery at The Plant can be used to grow mushrooms, turned into compost for farming, or even turned into briquettes and burned in the masonry oven that’s used by the bakeries in the building. “All of these things are energy intensive, but they’re also waste intensive and have valuable waste streams that come out of them,” said Edel.

Ultimately, The Plant will be a net zero energy facility when it reaches full capacity. Recycling its own waste as well as the waste of other neighboring food producers, The Plant will be a working model of an energy efficient, local-centric food business incubator that could easily be replicated throughout empty industrial buildings across the country. “This is the answer to a lot of our problems,” said Edel. “If some hippies can buy a derelict building for not very much money and make it net zero, what’s Corporate America’s excuse?”

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