Report from a Lawyer Not Working as a Lawyer by Melanie Hoekstra

I am ridiculously lucky: I don’t have my dream job – I have a job I never could have dreamed. I’m the Operations Manager at a place called The Plant – a former 93,000 square foot meatpacking facility that we’re renovating into a vertical farm and food-business incubator. What’s more, we plan to be off the grid (i.e., using no fossil fuels) by 2015. My role is to manage all things business-related: grant-writing, grant administration, construction management of the renewable energy system to us off the grid, financing, accounting, nonprofit regulations, public relations, tenant leases, and more!

As one of two full-time employees, my boss and I are pretty overworked, definitely underpaid, and nearly constantly stressed out. Yet, I work with a group of staff, tenants, and volunteers that are some of the most intellectually curious, fun, humble, and dedicated people I’ve ever met. Plus, the building will soon be full of people who brew beer, bake bread, and cook great food.

But, as my grandmother is quick to point out: I have a law degree. Why am I not busy being a lawyer and suing the pants off polluters, like I’d planned pre-law school?

The truth is that the law is generally reactive. Environmental law is no exception: it deals mostly with regulations that control pollution or what to do about a violation. But addressing pollution is itself a backward-looking task. The problem already exists and now it must be addressed. But what if we had processes that didn’t produce pollution in the first place?

It sounds far-fetched, I know.

Still, this is exactly what attracted me to The Plant. Basically, we’re conducting a giant experiment to see if we can create over 125 green jobs without using fossil fuel to do so. By closing as many resource loops as we can, we are reducing the amount of pollution to nearly nothing while putting out lots of good food. Our renewable energy system looks like this: a combined heat and power system (i.e., a big generator) burns methane, which produces heat and electricity. The heat goes to the beer brewing process to make the kettles boil and the electricity goes to the lights over the farm.

Even our farm is a nearly closed-loop model. We’re using an aquaponic design where we raise tilapia and use their waste to feed hydroponically-grown plants. The plants filter the water for the fish and the fish feed the plants.

Could I have done this kind of thing as an environmental lawyer? Possibly, but mostly indirectly.  What I couldn’t do is work for an organization that is trying a big experiment and that plans to give out the blue prints and results for free to the public. We want other people to see what we’re doing and replicate and improve upon our model. This is exactly the kind of work I love: it’s complex, meaningful, and fun!

So, no, I’m not a lawyer. And, no, I probably won’t ever be paid “big law bucks.” I’ll always have to watch my spending and work late hours. But the government doesn’t tax what my organization does precisely because it benefits the world. I’m proud of that – and that’s worth a whole lot.

Melanie Hoekstra is the Operations Manager at The Plant, a vertical farm and food-business incubator.  She is a graduate of Chicago-Kent College of Law and the University of Michigan. She cooks, reads, bikes, and sees her friends whenever she can.

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