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

(Continued from page 1)

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

"Technically, we're a farm," Spatafora said. "But nothing in the Chicago business code regulates farming. The closest thing they've got is a restaurant, and clearly, we're not a restaurant."

Retooling an industry -- and creating business for a new era -- isn't easy, everyone acknowledges. But Mayor Rahm Emmanuel is committed to helping entrepreneurs sort out licensing issues, his spokesman said.

Still, some still question if it's worth all the trouble.

"I don't want to be overly negative. It's very interesting technology. It's all the rage and all the buzz," said Dan Vogler, a trout farmer in northern Michigan who is also president of the Michigan Aquaculture Association. "But whether or not it can be done economically, I don't know."

One urban aquaponics business called Natural Green Farms, in a former plow factory in Racine, Wis., did temporarily close this year after a failed expansion -- though its owners are vowing to grow the business back up.

With the potential for a seafood shortage in the next five to 10 years -- and most of the supply coming from overseas -- Vogler says government officials should be focusing more on farms dedicated to raising fish only, often in bigger quantities.

"Take a look at species that we are already good at growing, using technologies we already know how to do," Vogler suggested. He said those species include trout and salmon, shrimp, catfish and crayfish.

But those types of fish farms also can have a different set of challenging issues, including the fact that the water used in them, once dirty, is often flushed away, said Todd Leech, vice president at Sweet Water Organics, the urban aquaponics business in Milwaukee.

In 2010, the company, housed in the old crane factory, began selling perch and other fish, as well as greens, such as lettuce, spinach and chard, to restaurants and grocery stores, and at farmers' markets.

Leech said they've found an economically viable model and have now reached "break even" status.

In fact, Milwaukee is developing a reputation as an urban aquaponics leader, helped along by a nonprofit called Growing Power that received a MacArthur Foundation grant and developed the aquaponics model that Sweet Water has used.

One of the biggest expenses to overcome, Leech said, is electricity to run the grow lights for the plants. Increasingly, he says indoor aquaponics businesses will have to look for solar and other options if they want to maintain their indoor businesses.

To help offset electricity costs, Sweet Water also is setting up greenhouses on land outside its warehouse -- and as a result, expects to turn a profit this year, Leech said.

That sort of success is a little ways off for 312 Aquaponics, whose young owners have had to find part-time jobs while they wait to complete the licensing process.

Even young pioneers have to pay the rent. So one of the partners is doing website development. Spatafora is doing tax preparation for friends and family members. And Fernitz is doing some bartending.

"Yeah, I gotta go serve and dole out some drinks for a while," Fernitz said, smiling, "which is just fine."

Regardless, they are sticking by their goal to be selling at markets by summer.

"We don't want to be on the sidelines while everyone else is out there at the market, in the grocery stores, putting their food out there," Spatafora said. "We're ready to get going."


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