Chicago’s ag revolution

Features - Cover Story

From indoor farms, to produce in airports, to the world’s largest rooftop greenhouse, the Second City is quickly becoming first in urban farming.


O’Hare International Airport in Chicago is one of the busiest travel hubs in the world. The Federal Aviation Administration says O’Hare is the second largest airport in the U.S.A., and the fourth largest in the world. The airport will host more than 69 million passengers in 2015, according to Business Insider. For travelers, it’s a rite of passage. The airport is an unofficial municipal landmark.

It’s also the perfect introduction to Chicago’s flourishing urban agriculture scene. During the past few years, the city has exploded with rooftop greenhouses, vertical farms, restaurants and caterers that grow their own produce, and consumers that demand hyper-local veggies. Together, these ingredients form a recipe for a thriving metropolis of nearly 2.8 million people that self-produces a hefty chunk of its own food.

That’s why it makes sense that, smack-dab in the middle of O’Hare’s Terminal 3, next to Concourse G, there’s a 928-square foot vertical farm called the Aeroponic Garden. Encased by a 3½-foot glass wall and situated atop a leak-preventing rubber mat, the space houses 26 aeroponic grow towers that produce a medley of herbs and vegetables for the airport’s many restaurants. When hungry travelers stop into world famous chef Rick Bayless’ Tortas Frontera and order cochinita pibil (a slow-cooked pork dish), it’s likely that the spice melting their mouth is from habanero peppers harvested right at the airport. For those who prefer something less spicy, a selection of chives and edible flowers are available at Wicker Park Seafood & Sushi, and basil leaves are offered at the Wolfgang Puck Express.

Nearly 20 different crops are grown in the vertical system, including: snap beans, oregano, thyme, red lettuce, purple basil, the aforementioned habanero peppers, edible flowers and chives, and more.

HMSHost is a food and beverage service provider for travel stops like airports and highway rest areas. Bradley Maher is the senior director of operations at O’Hare for HMSHost. He helped conceptualize and install O’Hare’s Aeroponic Garden.

“It took us at least six months to complete from concept to installation,” Maher says. “Here’s how it works: It’s a soilless growing technique. There’s a 30-gallon tub on the bottom, and every half hour there’s a pump that kicks on for 15 minutes, and it shoots the water straight up to the top of the tower. And then it just uses gravity to feed its way down.”

Maher says one, part-time staffer maintains the grow towers and manages the harvest. According to O’Hare Aeroponic Garden’s Web page, the towers support 1,100 individual plants and are open year-round. The finished plants are given to airport-based restaurants free of charge.

“The response has been very positive. Our offices are right across from the garden and there are people up here every day taking pictures,” Maher says. “It’s a very secluded area. It’s very aromatic. You can smell the cilantro and the basil. When the water turns on for that 15-minute cycle, it’s very tranquil and peaceful. It’s an area for people to get away and feel like they’re not in an airport anymore.”

Welcome to the Windy City

In late 2011, the same year O’Hare’s Aeroponic Garden opened, the seeds of Chicago’s citywide, urban agriculture revolution were planted. After much advocating and lobbying, Chicago’s City Council passed an amendment that reworked many of its zoning ordinances. The changes largely benefited urban farms, be they commercial, nonprofit or residential. For example, the size limit specification for community gardens was expanded to 25,000 feet, which allowed commercial urban farms to enter the city (something that had previously been extremely difficult). It also allowed for aquaponics within city limits, and created relaxed parking and fencing rules for larger farm operations.

“Our goal is to foster the development of neighborhoods where affordable housing, jobs and open spaces contribute to continued growth and vitality,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a press release in 2011. “Facilitating investment in our communities is essential to the future economic health of our city.”

Since that law change, the development of urban agriculture in Chicago has been impressive.

In 2010, only two farms existed in the city, totaling ½ acres. Now, the number of existing and planned urban farms in Chicago has increased to more than a dozen farms totaling 20 acres, says Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner for Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development.

This is partly attributable to new zoning regulations, Strazzabosco says. Five years ago, the zoning code did not define or regulate these farms — including hydroponic and aquaponic systems. New definitions and regulatory provisions have since been added. Thanks to these amendments, rooftop farms are also allowed in all commercial districts, manufacturing districts, and other areas with a special-use permit.

Meanwhile, the city has been at work preparing vacant, city-owned land for farming use by nonprofits and community groups. Improvements are made in areas like water and fencing (Strazzabosco says these costs can exceed $250,000 per half acre). Then, the land is transferred for $1 into a land trust that provides liability insurance for a local management entity.

“These projects are typically performed by the city on behalf of nonprofit growers with a social service mission. The benefits include the productive use of formerly vacant land, new opportunities to provide healthy food in local neighborhoods, job training and supplemental income for participants,” he says.

Fruits of the labor

One such group that has benefited from these efforts is Herban Produce, which also invested its own $200,000 into its property to grow organic produce on a quarter-acre of land in East Garfield Park. There are several others throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods, such as the “Green Healthy Neighborhoods” land use plan for greater Englewood; Chicago Farmworks in Humboldt Park; Eat to Live and Legends Farm, both in Grand Boulevard; and The Plant, located in New City.

The Plant’s parent company, Bubbly Dynamics LLC, received a city grant to repurpose the 93,500-square-foot former meatpacking facility into a diverse food production hub of aquaponics and other growing systems. The property is leased to 10 tenants that produce commodities like kombucha tea, mushrooms, cheese, leafy greens and other fruits and vegetables.

Plant Chicago, the nonprofit associated with The Plant, is focused on educating the community through workshops, tours and volunteer opportunities, to spread knowledge of these sustainable farming systems, as well as conduct research about ways to close the loop in production.

“Plant Chicago has a demonstration aquaponic farm, which is a closed-loop system, but there are exterior inputs you need to put into it, especially the food for the fish. So what we’re trying to do is experiment with different types of fish food that can be used purely from the waste of other food producers in the building, so we’re not actually purchasing outside, commercially produced fish food,” says Jonathan Pereira, Plant Chicago’s executive director.

The point, Pereira says, is to ultimately eliminate all waste from the building, using the output of one tenant as input for another.

“We’re experimenting with mushrooms, waste mushrooms from mushroom production in the building, but also algae,” he says. “We have spirulina algae growing from the waste off of our fish and shrimp farms that we are trying to feed back to the fish in the system.”

Plant Chicago also hosts farmers markets year-round for the community. During the winter months, they offer an indoor farmers market that begins in October, highlighting food producers within The Plant, as well as a few outside vendors.

“Our goal as the nonprofit is to be completely open-sourced about what we’re doing, which is not something that a for-profit always has the ability to do because they’ve discovered things that have taken them a long time to figure out, and they don’t necessarily want to let everybody know the secrets of their success,” Pereira says. “Part of our open-sourcing is not just the secrets to our success, but being open and honest about the challenges there are and maybe where we haven’t been successful.”

Lobbying and tracking

Advocates for Urban Agriculture (AUA), has taken a different route to promote urban agriculture within the city.

AUA, which began in the early 2000s as a loose-knit group of urban farmers and gardeners who met to discuss desired policy changes, formalized a mission in 2006 to put together a list of recommendations to promote agriculture within Chicago.

AUA worked with the city in 2010 and 2011 to hone the zoning amendment, and currently collaborates with several local organizations, including DePaul University, on the Chicago Urban Agriculture Mapping Project (CUAMP), which will provide a comprehensive tool for locating urban farms and gardens and tracking the growth of the urban agriculture scene through the years. The project debuted in March of this year and can be viewed at

“I would definitely say things have been kind of exploding in the last five years,” Billy Burdett, director of AUA, says. “It seems to exponentially increase with each passing year. I think there’s a critical mass of awareness about important issues out there, and urban agriculture very convincingly speaks to those issues.”

Howard Rosing, the executive director of the Steans Center at DePaul, has been a key figure in the development of the mapping project. He says the project was in development for five years before its launch, so he’s been able to watch the development of Chicago’s farms in that timespan.

“There are absolutely more sites producing food now,” he says. “Every season, and offseason, I see new things emerging, both indoors and outdoors. Season-extending sites, in particular, have been expanding. I see more hoop houses and cold tunnels all the time. It’s a booming area of our food economy.”

Both Burdett and Rosing attribute much of the success of CUAMP and the surging popularity of urban agriculture to a powerful demand for locally sourced food.

“Knowing where your food comes from, knowing where all your products are coming from, knowing how these products were produced — that awareness has been growing like crazy nationwide and urban agriculture plays right into that,” Burdett says. “We’ve had some really exciting examples of urban farms and garden projects in the city.”

Sam Wortman, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois who studies urban agriculture, agrees.

“There’s a strong demand for local food. The foodie scene in Chicago is unparalleled. Restaurant culture is huge in the city. A lot of chefs are very gung ho about urban farming because they like to tout that their greens were harvested the same day that they are served,” he says. “I think that drive, more than the politics, is driving this movement.”

Dining out, grown within

For Uncommon Ground, a restaurant in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, that produce is harvested right from the roof.

When co-owner Helen Cameron was contemplating whether to purchase the restaurant property in 2007, she took a ladder to the roof to check out its condition.

“My eyes cleared the parapet wall and I saw this huge, 4,000-square-foot, killer roof space. It was in February, but it was a really sunny day, and you could just really feel the warmth coming off the roof — the first thing that popped in my head was an big, fat, heirloom tomato,” Cameron says.

Cameron restored the space and turned it into the first certified organic rooftop farm in the United States, she says.

To make that happen, a structural engineer evaluated the property, then replaced wooden beams in the basement for steel beams, wooden framework for steel framework supported by bearing walls, and they dug down an additional 5 feet to hold the weight that the roof would carry, she says.

The produce is grown via several raised beds, EarthBoxes (a sub-irrigated planting system) and LiveWall (a wall-growing system that’s irrigated), which can be placed strategically to block Chicago’s infamous wind gusts.

Uncommon Ground now has access to its own tomatoes, peppers, carrots, squash, cucumbers, several varieties of beans and herbs, and more, for use in dishes that correspond with the season. For example, this fall, pumpkin ravioli with squash will be on the menu, while a gnocchi dish served with green beans and tomatoes will be saved for the summer.

It takes a big load off of Cameron’s chefs to have produce options immediately available, and it also gives them a lesson in sustainability.

“It’s so easy to just pick up a phone and call your produce supplier and say, ‘I want all these things,’” Cameron says. “I don’t let them do that. They have to buy things that are in season. And so I give them certain limitations, and then they have to write the menu according to that. It’s a whole other point of education for chefs to really focus on what’s happening in a particular season, and then utilize the things that are absolutely of that time on the menu.”

Home-cooked, locally grown

When Chicagoans want to cook at home, local grocery chains like Roundy’s Mariano’s make it a priority to carry locally grown produce. “We have worked with local growers closely for over 30 years. We do this because we feel it is right to support local companies and support their efforts as they shop our stores and raise families in our communities,” says Roundy’s Vice President of Produce Merchandising Steve Jarzombek.

Roundy’s offers commodities like kale, arugula, basil, lettuce spring mix and salad dressings that are grown, mixed and packaged at FarmedHere — one of the country’s largest indoor vertical farms — located just 15 miles southwest of the city.

For more on FarmedHere, see “Seizing the moment” in Produce Grower’s June 2015 issue.

Because of its proximity to Roundy’s stores, product from FarmedHere has a quick turnaround time. “It is picked and packed and delivered to the stores’ back door within 24 hours, very fresh,” says Jarzombek, who has visited the FarmedHere site twice, and was impressed with the cleanliness of the facility.

He also says customers recognize the brand, and they return to purchase FarmedHere fresh greens and dressings week after week.

To satiate consumers’ demand for local produce, Roundy’s is also partnering with BrightFarms, a start-up that broke ground in August on a Chicagoland greenhouse in Rochelle, Ill., about a 90-minute drive from the heart of downtown.

BrightFarms will supply year-round baby greens and tomatoes, estimating an output of 1 million pounds of produce per year.

Paul Lightfoot, BrightFarms’ CEO, says his company was eager to expand into Chicago.

“First, Chicago is one of the greatest cities in the world. Second, Chicago is a hotbed of food movement activity,” he says. “In the restaurants and supermarkets, this is a region of progressive attitudes and forward-thinking eaters.”

Supplying consumer demand

Forward-thinking can be expensive. One tool that cities have to support these projects is tax incremental financing (TIF). TIF allows municipalities to provide funding for community redevelopment, infrastructure and improvement projects. A tax increment is the difference between tax revenue generated at a site before its TIF designation (before the area has been improved) and the assessed tax revenue to be collected after.

“TIF dollars are very important for the viability of some of these projects, particularly as an incentive to develop,” Wortman says.

TIF financing is an essential tool in Chicago for the development of small- and medium-sized urban farms. But TIF can help big growers, too.

Chicago’s Community Development Commission approved the use of $8.1 million in TIF subsidies to support infrastructure improvements in Pullman Park, a historic factory district that hadn’t seen a new factory in nearly three decades, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Those improvements were made in conjunction with an announcement from Method Products, a manufacturer of cleaning and personal care goods, that it would be constructing a new, 150,000-square-foot facility in the Pullman neighborhood.

In addition to being the first factory in Pullman in 30 years, Method’s site is designed for LEED-Platinum certification, replete with wind turbines, solar panels, loads of natural light and the world’s largest rooftop greenhouse.

Operated by Gotham Greens, the greenhouse will measure 75,000 square feet and will grow more than 1 million pounds of produce per year. Specifically, the site will hydroponically grow salad greens, lettuce and herbs for the restaurant market. Viraj Puri, Gotham Greens’ CEO, says the facility’s yield will be equivalent to 40 acres at a conventional farm.

This expansive greenhouse facility is Gotham Greens’ first expansion outside of its New York City base. Puri says that the founding partners of the company have personal ties to the city.

“Chicago felt like a natural fit for our company’s expansion,” he says.

The culture and climate of the city added to the appeal.

“Chicago has an incredible local food culture and has also shown great leadership in green building and urban farming over the years,” he says. “Chicago, like New York, has long winters when there’s a dearth of availability of fresh produce. Given the thriving local food scene, growing demand for local produce and the geographical considerations, Chicago was the logical next step.”

But the construction process was not without its headaches.

“Overall, the city officials of the city of Chicago were very supportive of our project. That being said, the zoning, permitting and construction process and procedures in Chicago, like any major city, are stringent and demanding,” he says. “Executing on major construction projects in cities is not for the faint of heart. But neither is farming.”

While it comes with challenges, urban farming’s upward swing in Chicago and in cities across the country, is leading to positive change toward sustainable economies, making a difference in the way people think about how their food is made, and providing innovative ways to feed their communities.

“The enlightenment keeps growing and the movement keeps growing,” Cameron of Uncommon Ground says. “And that’s a very, very important thing for our food security in the future.”