Factory-into-Farm Idea Mushrooming on Chicago’s South Side


Chicago, aka hog butcher for the world, is home to The Plant, a meat-packing factory-turned-food production center and farmer’s market. The three-story building, vintage 1925, sits squarely on the border of a gritty south side industrial and a residential neighborhood. It is a hotbed of activity where recycling is paramount. A tour of The Plant gives you a chance to see its “food loop” in action, surrounded by re-engineered building space and salvaged materials.


On the first floor, for example, where pig carcasses once hung, you’ll peek hungrily at gourmet mushrooms growing on punching bags filled with recycled sawdust and coffee chaff from the roastery upstairs. Around the bend, look closely and you’ll see hall lamps overhead made from retired ambulance lights. In the basement, tilapia swim in tanks connected to beds of lettuce and kale rooted in water and nourished by nitrogen from fish excrement. The greens then clean and oxygenate the water as it flows back into the fish tanks.


Elsewhere in the building, the transformation continues. The latest additions will include a brewery, plus bathrooms and showers fashioned from old meat lockers.


Fueling the whole operation is a long, shiny cylinder parked out back that looks like an oil truck but is actually an anaerobic digester. Food waste that can’t be reused, like spent grain from the brewery, will be fed into this digester and biodegrade into biogas, or methane. The gas will then be returned into the building via a high-pressure turbine (a recycled fighter jet engine), where it will generate power and heat.


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