April 10, 2012

In old meat plant, fish feed greens as both head to table

So-called aquaponics has been growing on a small scale, but big commercial ventures are still unproven.

By MARTHA IRVINE/The Associated Press

CHICAGO — They call this place the Back of the Yards, a neighborhood in the middle of the city once filled with acres and acres of stockyards.

click image to enlarge

Andrew Fernitz, a partner in 312 Aquaponics in Chicago, holds a net containing tilapia in an old meat-packing plant where the business has taken up residence. Water containing waste from the fish is used to fertilize greens, which filter out the nutrients.

The Associated Press

In their heyday, those stockyards gave Chicago a reputation as the world's meat-packing capital -- but also as an environmental and health horror brought to life in the stark images of Upton Sinclair's novel "The Jungle."

The stockyards are long gone. Now, you will find a jungle of a very different kind here.

It's on the third floor of an old meat-packing plant, a humid hothouse, of sorts, filled with rows of greens and sprouts, even exotic white strawberries. Nearby, in large blue barrels, lurk tilapia, a fish native to tropical regions.

It's all part of the fledgling world of urban "aquaponics" -- vertical farms set up in old warehouses where plants and fish are raised symbiotically. The idea is that water containing fish excrement is used to feed and fertilize the plants, which then filter that water before it goes, through a series of pipes, back to the fish.

"I never really saw myself going into farming -- but this was an opportunity to try something different," said Mario Spatafora, a 24-year-old accountant by training who is vice president of finances at this new Back of the Yards company, known as 312 Aquaponics. The company hopes it will soon be selling fish and vegetable greens to restaurants and at farmer's markets in the Chicago area.

It started when one of Spatafora's childhood friends, now one of four young partners in the business, set up a successful aquaponics system in his apartment when they were in college -- and a business idea sprouted.

"I knew that even in the worst-case scenario, if we couldn't make this work," Spatafora said, "a tax job and being an accountant would always be there."

But this was their chance to be young pioneers.

Those in the field say interest in aquaponics has been growing in the last three years -- though mostly on a smaller scale with people who have backyard greenhouses or who live in warmer climates such as Hawaii.

Sylvia Bernstein, vice chairman of the newly formed Aquaponics Association, has seen the spike in interest. She started an online community forum for aquaponics gardeners two years ago. Last February, the site had 800 members. This year, there are about 4,500.

So far, though, only a few are attempting indoor aquaponics on a commercial scale. Besides the Chicago site, there's one aquaponics business in an old crane factory in Milwaukee, for instance, and another in a warehouse in Racine, Wis.

"These guys are really on the cutting edge," said Bernstein, who is also an author and aquaponics equipment supplier in Boulder, Colo.

The sunny space that 312 Aquaponics occupies has high ceilings, brick floors and warm, moist air. In it, visitors find rows of flats under grow lights. Many of those flats are filled with lettuce and "microgreens," tiny plants, such as basil or beets, that are grown closely together in hydroponic containers and used much like sprouts in salads and sandwiches.

Once the plants are ready for market, the flats will be covered and distributed to restaurants live so they stay as fresh as possible, said 23-year-old Andrew Fernitz, a biology major in college who is another of the 312 partners.

Fernitz dunks a net into one of the barrels, pulling out two skittish tilapia. "They are a hardy fish," he said, chosen in part because they can better withstand fluctuations in water temperature.

There are, of course, challenges to getting an old building like this up to code. There are cracks in the floor or ceiling that are being repaired, and occasional drips in the pipes that supply water to the system. The entire process has to be licensed by city health inspectors and other departments.

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