Thursday, January 3, 2013

Food Eco-Industrial Park and Incubator - The Plant Chicago

How to describe "The Plant" in Back of the Yards on Chicago's South Side which I visited in late December 2012?

It is a net-zero energy and waste food business incubator and has at various stages of development:
  • Two breweries (one for tea, the other beer)
  • Two bakeries
  • A mushroom farm
  • Two fish farms
  • Two leafy greens farms
  • A jam producer
  • Demonstration and development kitchens
  • Training facilities
  • Rooftop, ground-level, and greenhouse Kitchen gardens
  • Shared office space and support services
  • Retail shop and visitors centre
  • Farmers market
The plant as it will be in 3 years

But as befits a project which John Edel, Executive Director describes as being planned using systems thinking, it's not just a list of businesses in a single building.  It far more integrated and multifaceted, though definitely not complicated.  Indeed there is a beauty to this business model...

 Outside In...
Looking from the 'outside' the project:
  • Is a start-up eco-industrial project creating high quality local sustainable food and jobs with zero net-waste and zero net-energy use
  • Is a business incubator for food producers, processors and retailers, including something like the Finnish "Open Kitchen" project
  • Has a collaborative, integrated and mutually supportive business model involving not-for-profit, for-profit and charitable organizations, the community, food entrepreneurs and consumers 
  • Aims to educate the local population about healthful food choices (in what many would describe as a food desert)
  • Is a proof of concept for an urban vertical farm
  • Is a green building project which is re-purposing a former meat processing facility through creative on-site reuse of all existing materials 

       Inside Out...
      From the inside, the business model is described by John Edel using a system dynamics like causal loop diagram - showing the cycles and flows of energy and materials through and in and out of each of  the various organizations and businesses involved:

      The System Dyanmics Flow of Materials and Energy in the Plant

      In this short talk by John Edel he explains much of the above and more with many more pictures! (Although John doesn't dwell on it there is some serious science and engineering behind this project).
      For a video which includes a good walk through of the first of the acquaponics (fish + leafy greens) farming operations (walk-through starts at 3m49):
       A Work in Progress...
      When I visited the foundations for the German Anaerobic Digester, similar to the ones installed as part of the Toronto Green Bin program back in 2004, were being actively excavated with installation and commissioning due for mid-2013.
      Eissenman Anaerobic Digester similar to the one being installed at The Plant
      The combined heat and power unit was installed, and the space for the chillers being actively prepared.  The tea brewery was in operation.  One of the bakery tenant's ovens was finished and awaiting final inspection and the 2nd aquaponic operation, a commercial tenant, was also just ramping up.  Mushroom production was underway and much evidence of other works in process! During the tour, which was led by John, he estimated that the space would be fully occupied by tenants within 3 years.
       So What...
      This is a wonderful example of the new art and science of strongly sustainable business model design!  It recognizes equally the need to simultaneously generate and integrate economic, social and environmental benefits while minimizing "costs" in all three dimensions.  At the same time it recognizes the context for all this activity and understands the necessary relationships between and with contexts for this business model.  Yes, it is more complex than traditional profit-first business models; but it is also far less risky in the short, medium and long term.  It recognizes the fundamental limits and needs of the environmental and a broad range of stakeholders - not just stockholders.  It will be effective at generating desirable outcomes for all.  Further by re-purposing waste as raw materials its operating costs for energy and raw materials will be lower, offering efficiencies higher than existing businesses in the same industries. BTW this is John Edel's second venture into strongly sustainable business: the first the highly successful Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center (CSMC).   The CSMC project, over 5 years, took a former manufacturing plant which had become a biker den and returned it to a profitable collaborative centre for small scale manufacturing! (John talks about it at the start of the video above). The continuing success of the CSMC bodes well for The Plant. From what I can tell this is a ground-breaking and unique project in North America - one that paves the way for many more.  Kudos to John and everyone else involved... may the Plant become a huge success and prove out its commercial, social and environmental viability...
      I will be following along with great interest! can we get one of these started in Toronto?
       More Detail
      For a great write up of the Plant see this recent article in the University of Washington's Conservation Magazine: The Inside Job by Canadian Jennifer Cockrall-King. The following are two panels which provide some more details which I photographed during my December 2012 visit to The Plant (right click to open in a separate window to view larger)


      1. Could you please tell me exactly which companies have committed to operating in the plant? When I toured it, Edel hadn't signed any leases with breweries yet, nor had he any long term and stable content feedstock commintments . None of the kitchen facilities were completed. The single potential leaseholder produces just 20 loaves/week for a Saturday farmers market. Where is the constant stream of feedstock coming from? Who will buy the digestate at the prices on which he bases the financial feasibility of the AC project?

        I suggest you confirm that The Plant what it claims to be before you use it an a role model.

        1. Barb,

          Great questions... as I took some pains to point out in the section "A Work in progress" above The Plant isn't even 20% up and running yet. More like 5-10%. However the design appears (to my knowledge) well thought out, visionary (and better than many I've seen).

          The big thing for me was he is trying very hard to do the hardest thing... actually do something real in the world: make healthy food, make a happy healthy community, and help everyone involved make enough money to be comfortable all while having zero (net) negative impacts! Most social or environmentally focused projects and start-ups I've seen try one or two of these goals but its very very rare right now for someone to conceive of, let alone practically take steps to start to do more than two!

          Do you have any other examples of people trying The Plant's comprehensive integrated strongly sustainable business model approach? Love to hear your stories!

          To be specific..when I visited (Late Dec 2012)
          - The larger scale commercial baker was just about the commercial size oven (which was finished) inspected and was expecting to start baking for distribution to stores outside the Plant in January 2013.
          - The first acquaponic operation was up (and had been for some time), and a 2nd was just starting (we saw this and it looked 'ready to go'; we were told it was also awaiting inspection before Jan 1).
          - The mushroom farming was up (which we saw) and a large commercial hydroponic operation (which we didn't see).
          - The excavators and concrete pouring was underway during the tour for the digester which we were told had been ordered. As I mentioned the combined heat-power-cooling system was in place although not wired up (though there was clearly evidence this was in process - given we visited between Christmas and New Year I was really surprised about how much activity was going on!)
          - The Tea fermenting operation was up (although we didn't see it)
          - John Edel mentioned that he had a deal with a neighboring rendering plant (which used fat in pharmaceuticals if I remember correctly) for their waste. I think he said 25 tons of waste a day as soon as the digester was up. The balance was going to come from the other on-site operations
          - John said they had invested a lot of time trying to get one group to start the brewery but had finally figured out they had been strung along and have switched gears. He was hopeful of getting an LOI signed in 2013 Q1 with operations started by Q4 (I would guess it will be 2014).

          I'm sure there is more I could say... but bottom line is
          a) John has an impressive track record of making things other people have said are "impossible" happen - i.e. the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center
          b) He appears to have a solid plan; enough money (for example he had managed to get others to pay for brand new windows for the whole building) and enough people / volunteers and paid.
          c) He appears to have the relationship capital needed...

          So in conclusion I agree - its not done yet - and lots could go wrong - but its an impressive start (*VERY* impressive in my experience) - and since IF he succeeds he'll be a shining example of what we need I think we need to be supportive and helpful (and, sure constructively critical when that's what it needs to succeed).

          When did you visit? I sense you had high expectations of what would already be up and working... and clearly they are still in early days...

          (Sorry for the slow moderation... working on my thesis

      2. More coverage of the Plant this via @LocalFoodPlus.

      3. The idea of aquaculture/plant closed loop is not new. The question is whether this can be done commercially, or how much subsidy it needs. For instance, Growing Power in Minneapolis has been at this for more than a decade, but I'm not sure they could go it without funding. Maybe that's OK. Its not as if conventional Ag can make it without big subsidies! Still, its very difficult to tightly couple so many organic processes together. I presume The Plant will have anticipated keeping one section alive during outages in an up/downstream section....

        1. Great points... I think you've hit a number of the key topics that this fascinating experiment is going to generate some much need hard / experiential data.

          On your specific question about "outages" John didn't talk about that specifically so either they've got a plan or they'll get the experience at some (hopefully not fatal) cost! (Experience is the thing you get just after you needed it most).

      4. A new video of some of both retail and growing operations -

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