05/08/2012 04:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

City of Big Shoulders and Green Thumbs

A former meat-packing plant, once part of Chicago's legendary Union Stockyards, is trading in its stun line for a stunning new line of thinking. The Plant is billed as a vertical farm that operates using a plethora of sustainable practices. Used grain from the building's microbrewery feeds its fish farm, whose waste in turn feeds its mushroom farm (and other plants), which in turn cleans the water so it can go back to the fish farm. Any waste not actively being used goes into an anaerobic digester, which creates methane for use in generating the building's heat, electricity and steam for brewing.

So what's the point to all this? The Plant could provide plenty of positives:
  • Create as many as 125 jobs
  • Make productive use of a building that could otherwise lie vacant and act as a detriment to the neighborhood
  • Provide locally grown food -- really local! -- to the community
  • Act as a model for other such projects in the future
  • Do all of the above with net-zero waste and carbon impact

But there's more. According to Dickson Despommier's "The Vertical Farm" site, anticipated population growth will require us to increase our farmland by 20 percent to keep pace. But this is problematic, since we're estimated to already be using 80 percent of land suitable for farming, and traditional land practices lay about 15 percent to waste. The math is not encouraging.

Enter vertical farming. Despommier cites statistics projecting about 80 percent of Earth's population to be urbanites by mid-century. By using their multi-level structure to create multiple acres of farm land on the footprint of one, vertical farms essentially create farmland out of thin air, grow crops sustainably within the regions that need them most and do so year-round. There are claimed to be other benefits as well, such as the virtual elimination of weather-related crop failures, pesticides, agricultural runoff and more.

While vertical farms are relatively new on the scene, urban farming started making noise in the 1990s and can be found in places ranging from New York City to Tokyo to Caracas, Venezuela.

Read more about The Plant at Grist and Fast Company. See an entertaining and informative video from Today's Green Minute (and while you're at it, see TGM's video about "What on Earth").

And to those who saw today's comic strip and anticipated a blog about beer-drinking ghosts from the Roaring 20s... my apologies.

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