Harnessing local food production

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl 

[dropcap]In[/dropcap] our efforts to promote sustainable living we have used several approaches: offering classes on gardening and hoop house construction at IREA Headquarters; workshops and booths related to organic gardening; sales of organic produce from local producers; hydroponics and fish farming at the Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair; and building a demonstration solar greenhouse which we later donated to the Oregon High School agricultural program with modifications gained from our experiences with it.

We initiated a prairie project on the roof of the building occupied by Freedom Field at the Rock River Water Reclamation Campus in Rockford. We called attention to the hydroponics project at Auburn High School developed by Tim Bratina, who took his students on field trips to Chicago and Milwaukee to stimulate their interest in developing a small scale project at the high school. Bratina advocated the utilized of empty factory facilities in Rockford to house what amounts to vertical farms. We were involved in a series of meetings with YouthBuild In Rockford exploring the potential of utilizing their facilities as a site for what would be considered a vertical farm.

Sadly, none of these efforts succeeding in stimulating the utilization of available space as a site for an indoor organic farm in Rockford.

While gardening programs operate in communities in the area, an outstanding one has operated for several years in the DeKalb Schools under the leadership of Dan Kenny. He has agreed to make a presentation at this year’s IREA Fair, providing insights into the nature of his program and its future directions. His is an excellent model of what can happen in a community under effective leadership.

Vertical farming is another sustainability option to investigate. Although it is a relatively new, growing industry, it was suggested as long ago as 1909. Plants are raised indoors in layers, avoiding the extremes of weather. It generally uses hydroponics, the technique used by Bratina’s students. Vegetables are grown in nutrient rich waters and often include fish growing operations as well. Some use aeroponics, growing plants with only misting roots. Being indoors, LED grow lights are used to replace sunlight. Although it is an efficient use of resources, artificial light, heat and power are needed.

Recently some large-scale indoor gardening operations raising produce on a year-round basis and marketing through local supermarkets have been established in Chicago and Rochelle.

Mighty Vine in Rochelle grows tomatoes in a greenhouse operation and markets them through regional supermarkets. Bright Farms, also in Rochelle, offers a broader range of greens. Both of these operations are backed by outside interests and provide their produce on a year-round basis.

Chicago’s The Plant has been in operation for several years. It combines aquaculture, produce production, a brewery and an algae bioreactor. They are installing a biogas operation to reduce electricity costs. When it opened, the 90,000 square foot facility was the largest in the world. It is expected to produce one million pounds of organic greens including lettuce, spinach, basil and mint annually. It also expects to provide hundreds of jobs.

Although these farms are growing, Farmed Here in Bedford Park, formed in 2013 and billed as “the world’s largest indoor vertical farm,” closed its growing operations this year. It is, however, still producing food products.

Vertical farms are seen as an integral component in providing some of the food needs of urban populations and jobs for the communities. Such installations are expected to expand rapidly in urban centers around the world in response to the ravages of climate change, ongoing population growth and the desire to consume cleaner organic foods.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are the President and Vice President of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association.

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