In 1915, a professor of geology at the University of Southern California by the name of Gilbert Ellis Bailey published a book that had the potential to revolutionize agriculture. In the sixty-nine-page treatise, Bailey outlined what he saw as a more efficient way to cultivate crops: use explosives to increase land mass vertically as opposed to horizontally. Inexpensive explosives, wrote Bailey, “enable the farmer to farm deeper, to go down to increase his acreage, and to secure larger crops, thereby offering more surface area.”
Bailey’s book bore the same name as his idea: “Vertical Farming.”
In the coming decades, a handful of people, from Buckminster Fuller in the 1930s to a Malaysian architect named Ken Yeang in the 1990s, took the idea in a decidedly modern direction. Why not, they believed, integrate plants into a literally vertical space—namely, buildings? Growing plants in open-air buildings, argued Yeang, would serve communal nutritional and climate control needs.
Also in the 1990s, Dickson Despommier, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University, went a step further. Not only would growing plants in buildings help feed a sharply increasing human population that won’t have enough arable land, he argued, weather would no longer pose a problem to growth; spoilage would become less of a concern, since food would be grown locally; empty lots and buildings would be put to good use; urban jobs would be created; and when abandoned, damaged ecosystems would have a chance to heal themselves.
Enter the man hoping to chart the next step in vertical farming—and he’s Chicago’s to claim. In a scruffy patch of the Back of the Yards neighborhood, forty-two-year-old John Edel is spearheading the creation of an industrial system that he hopes will not just grow plants in buildings, but also show the world that by using the waste of one food-production process as fuel for another, you can create a multipurpose manufacturing ecosystem—with zero emissions.
And it looks like he’ll do it, too. Read the rest of this entry »