Smack dab in the center of what was once the “hog butcher for the world” is a repurposed food packaging plant that is being used for raising tilapia that eat the plants that drink the water that The Plant filters.
I tagged along with the Downers Grove Organic Growers on a steamy Saturday morning to tour The Plant in the Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicago. I’m so grateful that they let me join them. This is what garden clubs are like; open and eager to share the knowledge of growing things and learning about how we are expanding growing environments.
The Plant was home to Peer Foods since the 1920’s. It was where bacon and hams and other meats were processed and it provided jobs for many, especially those living in the Chicago neighborhood known as The Back of the Yards. The “yards’ refer to the stockyards. When it moved it’s operations westward, into the suburbs, it left a substantial employment gap in the neighborhood.
While the scene above may appear bucolic, it is not. It is about as urban as a neighborhood can be with rows of small houses on small lots that have stood the test of time and labor; city streets with small businesses serving the community – and an immense industrial area at its back. Smokestacks and cement cut the blue sky and poverty is but a day away.
The photo on the top is looking out of a second story window onto what was likely a parking lot and upon which now sits an urban farm.
As we departed, volunteers were setting up tables and tents for a small farmers’ market, providing fresh greens and vegetables from the site to the neighborhood. A large cooker was set up in what was once a loading dock to cook lunch for the volunteers and interns working at The Plant.
This is an exciting, emerging environment in an otherwise inhospitable cement jungle with a forward thinking agenda of providing food where food has not grown. Oh, the places one can go when thinking “outside of the box”. This old, dilapidated structure is receiving CPR. Its innards are being rearranged and repurposed. It will take some time to recover, but, recovering it is, with food business “incubators” finding tenant space inside this cavern of possibilities. A nearby bakery rents space and houses ovens inside its doors. A brewery will be taking up residence, as well as storage space for a cheese company. Mushrooms are farmed in a lower level room. A large portion of the basement houses enormous tanks where tilapia are raised; the water filtered back into the water plant beds, pushing up through holes juxtaposed in recycled cardboard gardens. Various heat lamps hang, testing different types of lighting as college interns plant seedlings just a few steps away. There are plans for a museum focussing on the surrounding neighborhood, classes, artwork and numerous other ways to replant The Plant.
I get confused, dear reader, over hydroponics and aquaponics and their relatives, but, you can read more about this topic if you choose by going to http://www.plantchicago.com/non-profit/farms/plantaquaponics/ and you can find out more about The Plant at plantchicago.com.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a few pictures of the growing areas inside The Plant – and outside of it. On the day of our trip, there were several volunteers working on the 3,000 square foot mural being painted on the outside of the building and designed by Joe Miller.
Hope, ideas, agriculture and more grows these days in this city neighborhood. A good thing. A good thing, indeed.