Concrete Progress: Farming the Fifth Floor

Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project.

Living in a city is a lot like living in a desert. No matter how rainy the climate or how fertile the soil, no city is capable of supporting all the hundreds of thousands of people who live and work and drive there every day. There is not enough land, and there is not enough water. And yet 80 (!) percent of Americans live in cities. How do we get our food? How should we?

You know the answer to the first question. We grow our food in Kansas and California and Java, and we boat or ship or truck it around the world at enormous ecological cost. And though we’ve seen better choices begin to assert themselves—farmers’ markets and CSAs and food hubs have been popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm—the inescapable fact is that food is usually grown outside of cities and away from the people who eat it. Urban real estate is just too valuable to devote many acres to crops. But in Chicago, they’ve found an answer.

FarmedHere is a vertical indoor farm in Bedford Park, Illinois, just south of Midway Airport. The key words are indoor (they use old corrugated box factories left over from Chicago’s industrial heyday) and vertical—the buildings house five levels of crops covering, all told, about 93,000 square feet. The people of FarmedHere grow arugula, kale, basil, mint, and salad greens, along with making their own basil vinaigrette. FarmedHere’s produce first appeared on grocery shelves in 2011, and is now available in dozens of spots across the Chicago area. Once it expands into its full potential—150,000 square feet are planned—the farmers expect to grow a million pounds of greens a year. FarmedHere is probably the biggest indoor organic farm in America.

How do they manage all this indoors? Isn’t it ruinously expensive and wasteful? Not at all. With no pests and minimal weather, the crops don’t need the same sort of artificial (and expensive) inputs that outdoor vegetables would, and there is no soil. FarmedHere cultivates its herbs and greens using only nutrient-rich water. The system is called aquaponics. FarmedHere raises tilapia on-site (which they sell to wholesalers), feeds them organic fish food, and cycles water through the fishes’ tanks. The water absorbs nutrients (aka fish poop), which is pumped along to feed the arugula, mint and so on. After the plants have consumed the waste, the cleansed water flows back into the system, and 97 percent of the water is conserved. Targeted growing allows FarmedHere to use about 10 percent of the water demanded by most farms. Power is expensive, but the company is switching its lighting system to super-efficient LEDs, which is also expected to increase their yields as well as lowering costs.

Chicago is not known for organic food (though I will never say anything bad about deep dish pizza or kielbasas); its growing conditions are not exactly stellar most of the year (the last time I visited, the thermometer read 18 degrees below zero); and it doesn’t have very much green space. Nonetheless, Chicago is in the vanguard of urban agriculture. Beyond FarmedHere, Green Sense Farms cultivates organic vegetables under LED lights, and The Plant, which also uses tilapia, raises mushrooms and shrimp along with greens and fish. The Chicago Botanic Garden runs a project called the Windy City Harvest Youth Farm, where hundreds of young Chicagoans farm in locations around the city, from schools to rooftops. The movement is growing elsewhere, too, with vertical farms all over the country. FarmedHere, for its part, is looking to expand to other site, and I confidently expect that in the future, more and more Americans will buy super-local food raised indoors in their home cities.

Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. A professor of environmental studies at Wofford College, he is devoted to understanding how people decide to restore and remake their environments.


  1. Great if they can manage this organically. The produce may have all the nutrients, but plants to be really healthy and fully nutritious need to be rooted in the earth (humus rich soil) and be exposed to sun and planetary radiation!

  2. this is fascinating and wonderful, but how are they keeping these buildings warm when it’s 18 outside. maybe they have solar panels?

  3. This is smart and inspiring. Thanks for sharing, Peter. I’m with Lonna, it seems that projects like this in Chicago will have to consider how they will heat their buildings. Perhaps passive solar in low density areas is one way. Of course photovoltaics and wind (it’s the windy city after all!) might be viable options too.

  4. Great article. However I have a small nit to pick with your opening sentence. A the definition of a desert actually has nothing to do with food production. The word refers to the amount of rain that falls – which is why Antarctica meets the definition. So no, strictly speaking most cities are not deserts.

    I know this point is not relevant to your main topic, but I bring it up because one problem with discussing any subject that has the potential to be controversial is that arguments often revolve around using the same word to mean different things. See the article in this issue about teaching evolution and the mis-application of the word “Theory”.

  5. I was just near this airport, and wished I had time to leave so I could go visit this place. Very interesting!

  6. I’m skeptical about commercial urban farming – would you rather use an acre of land in the city to grow food, or to provide walkable, transit-accessible housing for people? If we use urban land to grow food, we push people out into sprawling suburban development. Let’s keep cities for people and farmland for farms – that’s what each is best suited for.

    Would love to see a more nuanced analysis of energy inputs, embedded energy – but here’s a start:

  7. These are all great comments. John, you are right that the definition of a desert is rainfall – it would have been good to rephrase that to clarify the point about rainfall per the amount of people in the city. I’ll see about fixing that.
    Lonna and Seth, I also wonder how they heat their buildings, but that’s more or less the same problem for every building in Chicago, whether it houses leafy greens or cubicles.
    Bee, I’d be surprised if urban farming pushed anyone into the suburbs – sprawl is something that’s already happened, and many cities are full of abandoned buildings. The Hamm article is interesting and full of helpful ideas and data – thanks for sharing. I don’t have any quarrel with his analysis, but I don’t think that there is anyone who believes that cities will be entirely fed on urban crops. Shifting some production to otherwise unused urban spaces, as FarmedHere does, is only a part of the solution.

Submit Your Comments

Please Note: Before submitting, copy your comment to your clipboard, be sure every required field is filled out, and only then submit.