Fish farming makes a splash in Chicago

An article about urban food production,  a subject I've been covering a lot lately. It's not a health article per se, but a lot of these farms are located intentionally in Chicago's poorer neighborhoods, so they could play a big role in eliminating "food deserts." If they prove viable, that is.

Amid the worst economy in decades, Andrew Fernitz, 23, thinks he can raise fish and organic produce for a living.

While his classmates are searching for jobs at employment fairs and scrambling for internships, the recent University of Illinois at Chicago graduate quit his job as a bartender to join three friends in launching an ambitious new startup. Together they are setting up an aquaponic farm on the South Side.

Among environmentalists and urban gardeners, aquaponics has become a popular new endeavor. By raising fish and vegetables in indoor water tanks, Fernitz and his colleagues aim to cultivate fresh food in the heart of Chicago.

They call their venture 312 Aquaponics, and they will have competition. A company called City Micro Farms has an aquaponic test farm on South Wentworth Avenue in Chicago and aims to establish a second one by fall. (They also are experimenting with greenhouses and an "aeroponic" system in which plants grow on a cloth medium.)

Yet another startup called Greens and Gills is looking to buy suburban property where it will cultivate 100,000 pounds of fish and 1.5 million heads of greens per year. And the nonprofit urban-farming organization Growing Power is assembling its own aquaponic operation in a former truck depot in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood.

These aquaponic farmers are betting heavily that their business will boom, but there remains more than a chance that it could fail because of the unpredictability of a new technology.

Nevertheless, the farmers said they are optimistic.

"We think agriculture is about to make a great leap forward, just as communications did with the Internet."

Fernitz, along with Mario Spatafora, Brian Watkins and Arash Amini, have sunk $10,000 of their own money into the company. They also procured six months of capital from friend who is a successful poker player.

With it, they are setting up operations in a former meatpacking plant in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. Though Fernitz and his partners claim to have made a number of innovations, their aquaponic system is much like the ones being adopted by their competition.

They will grow vegetables and herbs — spinach, watercress, arugula, cilantro, basil, mint — in shallow, water-filled trays. Flat sheets of Styrofoam float like rafts in the trays, carrying symmetrical rows of seedlings, their roots poking through to the water below. The plants, under high-output fluorescent lights that shine in the red and blue wavelengths that plants crave, grow around the clock until, in three or four weeks, they become a dense carpet of leafy greens. Then it's harvest time.

The plant trays drain into circular tanks, each about the size of a large hot tub, that are home to fast-growing fish called Nile tilapia. In 10 months, they go from eggs to slippery, gray-and-white fish the size of salad plates, each bearing up to a half-pound of flesh.

By design, the tanks create a current for the fish to swim against. It's like a treadmill that yields stronger, healthier fish.

"People always ask about having so many fish in the tank," Fernitz explains. "But in their natural environment, the tilapia cluster up like that. They're like the chicken of the water."

The fish are omnivores. Together with his colleagues, Fernitz will feed them pellet grain and duckweed. "They grow 1 percent of their body weight a day," he said.

As the water circulates from tank to tank, a nutrient cycle unfolds. The waste generated by the fish takes the place of chemical fertilizers. Naturally occurring bacteria transform the ammonia in fish waste, normally toxic to plants, into salts called nitrates that nourish plants.

In short, the farmers feed the fish, the fish waste feeds the plants and the plant roots clean up the water for the fish.

Aquaponic systems can yield better produce quicker and in larger amounts than conventional agriculture, the urban farmers said. The constant flow of nutrients to plants enables them to grow much faster than crops in the field, they added.

There are potential environmental and health benefits to aquaponics too, the farmers said. Because the food is grown locally, it arrives fresher and lacks the "food miles" of produce from, say, Chile. Both the vegetables and fish grow up in controlled environments that prevent mercury accumulation in the tilapia and agricultural pathogens like E. coli that have triggered spinach and tomato recalls in recent years, the farmers added.

"Having a controlled environment eliminates the risk of foodborne pathogens from cow manure, birds flying over and pests," said David Ellis, the president and chief executive officer of Greens and Gills.

Ellis, who still works his day job as a marketing executive in Milwaukee, said that in the coming months he plans to transition to aquaponics full time and, ultimately, to employ 30 people.

"We can grow year-round," he said. "That's a competitive advantage for aquaponics. The only way you can do that in a cold place like Chicago is with this kind of controlled environment that protects you from the elements."

Despite the environmental advantages of aquaponics, the farmers make clear that it's a business, not a charity.

"We're not old hippies or tree-huggers," said Alan Rose, co-founder of City Micro Farms with Paul Hardej and Paul Suder. "We're businesspeople who want to commercialize a brand."

Though aquaponic farmers do not have to cope with droughts or unseasonable frosts, they face considerable challenges. There are the energy costs — it isn't cheap to run grow lights around the clock — and the farmers must navigate zoning laws that limit the size of farms in the city.

Technical breakdowns also can wreak havoc on aquaponic farms. For example, if the water temperature in the tanks were to dip for some unforeseen reason, the farmers have just a day or two to correct it before the whole operation collapses in a situation delicately termed "crop failure."

Fernitz and Amini constantly monitor their tanks' temperature, pH levels and other key data with their smartphones.

Given all these challenges, will Chicago's new aquaponic farmers succeed?

"If people are presented with a superior, fresher, locally grown product that's competitively priced and uniquely packaged, we will grow rapidly," said Rose, of City Micro Farms. "We will help the environment the most by growing the company fast."