CHICAGO Urban agriculture in Chicago is on the rise, though admittedly more like a hot air balloon than a rocket.

"There are people who are working on urban agriculture and hydroponics with the idea of building out these in a hyperlocal market," said Bill Bishop, chief architect at Brick Meets Click and chairman of Chicago-based Willard Bishop.

With demand for local produce increasing at farmers markets, restaurants and school districts, there appears to be plenty of motivation to develop workable models for urban agriculture, said Blake Davis, adjunct professor of sustainability and urban agriculture at the Illinois Institute of Technology.


Fitting out The Plant

With the goal of increasing local food production, Davis is working with a facility called The Plant, at 1400 W. 46th St.

The three-story building is on a 2.4-acre lot and is being fitted with urban agriculture technology. Davis also serves on the board of directors for The Plant.

The facility is still under construction but will someday produce food 365 days a year, Davis said.

The project is a team effort between the University of Illinois and Bubbly Dynamics that began three years ago.

John Edel, owner of Bubbly Dynamics LLC, was interested in food and urban agriculture and purchased a 93,500 square-foot former meat packing facility as a potential food production facility and an incubator for small business ideas.

Bubbly Dynamics LLC owns The Plant, which it acquired in July 2010, and Edel is developing the leasing and spaces.

However, Edel wasn"t strong with the science of vertical farming and brought on Davis to provide The Plant with students and expertise on how to engineer the vertical farm, including the design and construction of the aquaponics facility and outdoor gardening, mushroom production and other projects.


Facility"s features

The facility has about 12 volunteers working on various projects each day, Davis said.

One of the tenants of The Plant, Sky Greens, is already selling hydroponic greens to area restaurants, Davis said.

"We are the technology for indoor agriculture," he said.

On its website, The Plant"s mission is described as promoting sustainable food production, entrepreneurship, and building reuse through research. Davis said the building is being revamped with mostly recycled materials.

Davis said it may take seven years to finish out all of the space at The Plant.

Part of the outdoor grounds is set up to farm vegetables. A third of The Plant will hold aquaponics growing systems and the other two-thirds will incubate sustainable food businesses by offering low rent, low energy costs, and a licensed shared kitchen, according to the website.

The Plant"s leaders hope to install a renewable energy system that will eventually divert more than 10,000 tons of food waste from landfills each year to meet all of its heat and power needs.

Davis said The Plant envisions supplying produce picked in the morning to local restaurants who will serve it with the noon meal.

"It"s hard to get much fresher than that," he said.

What"s more, he said there are 70,000 vacant lots in Chicago that could be turned into food-making facilities.

"I think the need for and the interest in urban agriculture is very hot," he said. "Our job is to turn that interest into figuring out how to make businesses that make money," he said.

The Plant has public tours several times a week, and Davis said they often receive visitors from Detroit, Cleveland and other cities with urban agriculture potential.

"If we can create a model that works economically as well as technically, I believe there are a lot of people who would apply it in their own cities," he said.