Kids, adults and sustainable businesses

February 26, 2012

Introducing students to organic business practices

I’m not exactly sure what I’ve gotten myself into with this particular show segment. It was exactly four months ago that I received an email from a woman named Sue Bresett, who told me that she was working with a group of adolescents from Joliet Montessori School. She told me that she and her colleagues were running an “organic/hydroponic/natural produce buying cooperative” that is based in education.

The organization, Olive Living, L3C is described as a “low-profit entity” in Illinois specifically formed to work with non-profit organizations for educational purposes. Hey, I thought, I know what it means to work as a “low-profit entity.” After all, I work in radio. But I digress.

Here’s how the business works, in Sue’s own words:

Olive Living L3C is a buying co-op/adolescent business, which is part of the adolescent curriculum. We break the group into sectors and tasks. We cycle the tasks to make sure that each child gets a “taste” of accounting, marketing, technology, procurement, and customer service.

For instance, sending the bi-weekly newsletter and reminder to order, unloading the truck, weighing the items, filling the orders, helping customers to their car, filing the sales tax, creating the invoices in Quickbooks, swiping credit cards, going to the bank, making the marketing material, and various other tasks. There are a lot. We have even helped at the Greenhouse that supplies our lettuce!
We are always accepting new members! Our business is meant to serve the community. All they need to do is join the mailing list at Olive Living

Olive Living is undertaking a new Adolescent project of making a product to market. Just like on a grocery shelf. We have selected Salsa which will be made with the products that we sell. The Adolescents will be involved and jointly make as many group decisions as possible starting with the salsa recipe to the requirements of the Health Department, to packaging, to figuring out how much to charge. The learning is in the process.

Um…I was going to show the class how to sprout beans on paper towels but I think I’ll just put that whole thing back in the drawer.

Anyway, Sue, Carol Andrew, who is the head of the school, and a bunch of the students are stopping by the WCPT studios this morning to talk about this interesting program. Apparently, the kids have a hand in the business from technology, marketing, accounting, and procurement. The teaching of those skills is augmented by various trips that allow them to experience even more real life lessons.

So I’m trying to figure out why it took me four months to get this team scheduled on my show… especially because I intend to have them do my business taxes before they leave the building.

What is The Plant?

I can tell you what The Plant isn’t. It’s not a science fiction movie about a horticultural experiment gone terribly, terribly wrong.

However, describing what The Plant is…well, that’s a little harder to do. Here’s how they describe it on their own website:

The Plant  is a new kind of organization in a very old building. It’s part vertical farm, part food-business incubator, part research and education space – and it will be entirely off the grid.

It’s also a roughly 90,000 square foot former meat packing plant in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago that is in the process of becoming a home to businesses like

New Chicago Beer Co.  – A socially conscious beer brewery making bold, strong ales.
312 Aquaponics  – Bringing the power and scalability of cloud-computing to urban agriculture.
The Living Well Brewery, LLC  – Brewing potent Arize Kombucha, or fermented tea, with a great taste and mouthwatering bite.
SkyyGreens  – Creating indoor vertical growing systems that provide organic produce 365 days a year.
Windy City Worms  – Supplying happy red wiggler worms for composting to the Chicago area.

Here’s another thing about The Plant: it’s not for young children or the faint of heart…at least right now. Kathleen (my webmaster, camerawoman and partner, not necessarily in that order) and I were recently given a tour of the building by Blake Davis. (You can see some of the images and videos on my home page and on the left side of this page.) He is Adjunct Professor of Sustainability and Urban Agriculture in the Industrial Technology and Management Program at the School of Applied Technology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and he’s had more than a little to do with the ongoing work at The Plant.

The first thing we learned is that an old meat packing plant is COLD. Obviously, that will change when the various businesses are in place. But as you can see from the photos Kathleen took, some areas of the building are shells, whereas other areas feature collections of tools, tanks, machinery, bricks, and miscellaneous flotsam and jetsam of decades of industrial use. And there’s not much heat in the building right now, so keep your coats on.

Davis lights up when he talks about all of that…er, junk, which we gingerly step over and around. Because much of it is going to be reused as The Plant moves forward. In fact, that is the M.O. of the operation–create as much of a closed loop of energy and materials as possible, with the ultimate goal of being net-zero energy and net-zero waste by 2015. To that end, they hope an anaerobic digester will be up and running by the middle of 2013. It will take the building’s waste, including boiled grains from the New Chicago Beer Company, and convert them to methane to power the facility. Wow.

By comparison, the aquaponics facilities at The Plant seem almost, well, normal. Davis showed us the set up that allows tilapia live in tanks, contributing their waste nutrients to water that is then used to grow edible plants in hydroponic conditions. Voila! Aquaponics, yet another closed-loop system that someday might play a significant role in feeding our planet.

The Plant is the brainchild of John Edel, the owner and developer of the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, a green business incubator in the Stockyards Industrial Corridor. He’s obviously a very smart guy, as he was able to transform that facility from “a burnt-out shell to 100% occupancy while using a mixture of waste-stream recycled materials and leading edge technology to make the building exceptionally energy efficient and pleasantly non-toxic. The renovation was assisted by a core group of volunteers and by bartering with suppliers, tenants and scrappers.” Don’t you just hate people who can figure out things like that?

There’s much, much more to this project than I can possibly write about here. Blake Davis is in studio this morning, along with Tim Sparer, outdoor garden designer and manager, and Carla McGarrah, Farm Manager.