An Introduction: Nance Klehm, Ken Dunn and The Plant Chicago

Throughout Chicago, mounting concerns of soil contamination and fertility continue to fuel the growth of an increasingly complex urban agricultural community in which both well-established and newly sprouted innovators are working together to create deeper connections between people, food and soil. For years, soil pioneers such as Ken Dunn and Nance Klehm have created the foundation of this network through their research, gardening, urban farming and composting projects. Additionally, and now more than ever before, innovative technology-based sustainability initiatives such as The Plant Chicago are popping up throughout the city, introducing new ideas and opportunities regarding how we can conceive and implement more efficient and sustainable food systems.

Being relatively new to Chicago, I am just beginning to become familiar with this constantly evolving and growing network of environmentally and culturally focused people and their projects, and I am privileged to have become personally acquainted with a few of them. The following is simply an introduction to their culturally and environmentally indispensible work.

Nance Klehm grew up on a farm in northern Illinois, and since moving to the city has witnessed the drastic transformation of her homeland from wild land and farmland into suburb.  Her work is grounded in her past, and during an interview a few weeks ago, she described her connection to this work; “What I am doing is my nature, is really deeply rooted since birth and is possibly biological.” Klehm currently works throughout Chicago as an ecological systems designer, landscaper, horticultural consultant, and permaculture grower. She actively addresses local and global issues concerning soil, sustainability and systems in her own life as well as through professional outreach. She employs a variety of creative and visual strategies including working on collaborative projects, teaching workshops and giving urban foraging tours that help her audiences gain a deeper understanding of the interconnections between our bodies and the environment.

“On a forage, the first question is always, “How is it safe for me to eat anything in my environment?” I ask, “If it’s not safe for that plant, why do you think it’s safe for you? You’re breathing the same air, you’re exposed to the same environmental pollution.” We are no safer than the plants around us. We are in communication with all our orifices—nostrils, mouth, pores. Every breath is a literal exchange with our environment, so we are filtering our environment through our bodies. Because it’s all the same, we need to work more carefully with our environment” (Interview: Nance Klehm).

While Klehm’s interactions with her audience range between personal one-on-one experiences to somewhat larger group discussions and events, urban farmer Ken Dunn has been working on a broader city-wide approach in creating a healthier food system.

Dunn began focusing on resource-related issues when he began graduate school at the University of Chicago. Upon his arrival, he immediately recognized the high unemployment rates and serious quality-of-life issues in many neighborhoods throughout the city. He began to view vacant lots with the discarded items that lay upon them, and the unemployed people that hang out around them, as wasted resources, and has since developed a network of farms, composting projects and resource collection systems that combine these elements together to create productive and culturally valuable community spaces.

Over 80,000 lots remain vacant throughout the city, which together make up approximately 30,000 acres of wasted land. Dunn believes if these lots were transformed into active community gardens and food-producing farms, our currently unused space could effectively feed all of Chicago while providing employment for hundreds of people. In his approach, Dunn advocates making change by listening more than talking. His role is to listen to the communities that want change and then to work together to create the change:

“Your role is by listening and then – building a narrative that leads toward an action. And then when it comes to action, some of the ingredients of the action like the compost, or the truck to haul away the recycling or garbage, that comes with no fanfare, the resources are sort of magical. You don’t come in with a sign saying, this compost provided by resource center, or if you do this for me ill take away your garbage, don’t emphasized the expensive or the resources you bring. For a project to be owned, it has to be owned from day one, they perceive their own cleanup as worth more than the truck hauling away the recycling or the compost, and their own work spreading the compost is worth more than delivering the compost so the compost appears off hours and you forget about it as the ingredient they use to transform a vacant lot into a farm, and instead of 2-3 inches deep of compost you do it generously”(Interview: Ken Dunn).


Above: Washington Park Farm, one of Dunn’s newer projects

Dunn also is the founder of City Farm, an urban farm that sustains itself by growing and selling produce thorough local community farm stands and to high-end restaurants on the North Side of Chicago. It is also connected to Dunn’s environmental education non-profit, the Resource Center, which creates compost from the restaurant’s food scraps, runs a recycling project called Creative Reuse Warehouse, and operates its Perishable Foods program, a food distribution program that picks up and distributes food that would otherwise be thrown away by grocery stores to food banks and pantries. Much of Ken’s day-to-day work involves driving a gigantic composting truck from his different locations throughout the city picking up and dropping off food, supplies, compost and doing whatever needs to be done that day to keep his programs going.

While their methods may differ, Dunn and Klehm seem ideologically aligned and agree that huge changes with regard to food production, distribution, consumption and disposal need to happen throughout the city and at all levels of society. To begin learning how to feed ourselves in a truly sustainable way will require major lifestyle changes and this begs the question of exactly which kinds of efforts are going to be the most effective in creating such massive change. Another more recent venture called The Plant Chicago is working to answer this question.


The Plant Chicago, located 1400 W. 46 St. in the Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood, is rapidly becoming a unique example of culturally and environmentally focused system innovation. Originally designed and built by the Buehler Brothers as a meatpacking facility in 1925, the warehouse is now being transformed by John Edel and his team into a net-zero energy vertical farm and food business operation. When complete, which is estimated to be sometime between 2016 and 2017, The Plant will physically support and connect a closed loop system of approximately one-third aquaponic growing systems and two-thirds sustainable food businesses.  It aims to be economically profitable and create no waste, while actively working to improve the lifestyles and community of its inhabitants, neighborhood and city. It already houses many developing businesses including a rooftop garden, the Kombucha brewer, a mushroom basement, multiple aquaponic and hydroponic farms and a bread bakery.

A large focus of The Plant’s system involves the relationship between its hydroponic and aquaponic farms. The Plant farms Tilapia, a sturdy fresh-water fish that grow quickly and easily tolerates crowded tank environments. The Tilapia’s nitrate and ammonia infused wastewater is circulated into the hydroponic gardens and also used to nourish mushroom farms. The gardens plants, which thrive and grow quickly with the additional nutrients, in turn cleanse the water, which then is circulated back to the Tilapia tanks.

Additionally, the hydroponic gardens and breweries will work in tandem and any excess oxygen produced by the plants will be utilized to fuel its existing Kombucha and future beer breweries. The brewery’s carbon dioxide outputs will then circulate back to the hydroponic gardens to help facilitate even more robust plant growth.  Additionally, the beer brewery’s material waste, such as spent barley, will be used to feed the Tilapia.


Truly sustainable interaction between these two systems would not be possible without the third and possibly most crucial piece of the puzzle. The Plant is currently preparing to install an anaerobic digester, a machine that transforms organic waste into energy, in its backyard. The digester will take in various forms of organic waste including the breweries spent grain, the Tilapias waste material, food waste from The Plants future commercial kitchen and waste collected from neighboring businesses. It will then break the waste down into three key materials: hummus-like solid sludge, nutrient-rich liquids and bio-gas which is 2 parts methane and 1 part carbon dioxide. The methane/carbon dioxide mix will be pumped into a combined heat and power system and burned in a turbine generator to produce electricity and year-round heat/cooling for the building.  It will also produce additional carbon dioxide that will be re-directed to the hydroponic farms to further assist with plant growth (The Plant Chicago).

It is quite clear that The Plant’s model also presents big risks. Any attempt to connect so many different elements and systems while sustainably incorporating them into the infrastructure of a single building is an entirely new technological frontier, and most likely ripe with unknown contingencies. While there is a good chance that their project could fail, the great thing is that The Plant’s employees completely recognize these risks and are doing it anyway.

They do it not only because our world so desperately needs new strategies to begin solving the massive food and climate related problems facing our generation today, but also because even if the project doesn’t work, their attempt can serve as a base of research from which other innovators can learn important lessons. The knowledge gained can be used to further new ideas and eventually figure out how to make this kind of system work. In fact, one of The Plants long-term goals is to create a case study that will detail their ideas and construction processes to assist others in starting their own sustainable systems, independent of the outcome of this particular project.

Interconnected projects and systems such as those modeled by the Nance Klehm, Ken Dunn and The Plant are a crucial part of our transition into a culturally and environmentally conscious society. They exemplify a few of many different strategies and opportunities that society must actively take advantage of and employ in order to facilitate this transition. Our long history of environmental disregard has brought us to a point where we desperately need innovative projects like theirs to continuously push for the extreme change that needs to happen.

By Megan Isaacs


“Interview: Nance Klehm.” Telephone interview. 10 Apr. 2013.

“Interview: Ken Dunn.” Personal interview. 11 Mar. 2013.

The Plant Chicago. Plant Chicago NFP, n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

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