Slideshow: Go Inside an Urban Fish Farm of the Future on Chicago’s South Side

Plants growing at The Plant.

Once cattle were slaughtered by the thousands in Chicago’s stockyards. Today one of the meat processing plants that handled that beef is finding a new life as an incubator for a way of raising food that uses little or no energy or water from outside and produces almost no waste to take away. The Plant, located in the former Peer Foods building on 46th street, was conceived by entrepreneur John Edel as a self-contained system in which each part would feed another and the building would consume everything it produced. One of the new businesses in the building, 312 Aquaponics, is a tilapia fish farm and herb and vegetable grower which hopes eventually to sell to local restaurants. (They were selling herbs for a while, but the city stopped them.) We were given a tour of The Plant by 312 co-founder Andrew Fernitz; our report and slideshow continue below.

The concept for the entire building is that everything produced inside that’s not sold would be utilized inside, in as closed a loop as possible. For instance, later this summer there will be a brewery, New Chicago Beer Co., whose spent grains will be eaten by the tilapia in the building. Plant and fish wastes will go into a compost system which will produce methane that can be burned to help power the building.

Inspired by similar projects launched by Milwaukee’s Growing Power and Sweet Water Organics, The Plant owner John Edel started with a model tilapia and greens project in the building’s basement. But Fernitz, a former medical student who became more interested in nutrition and is one of four partners, says 312 Aquaponics wants to build a completely realistic model that can be taken to industrial scale.

Aquaponics combines both aquaculture (aka fish farming) and hydroponics (growing plants in water) to produce a more efficient hybrid of both. In 312’s system the fish live in tanks with a constant flow of water, which removes the wastes to a biological filter; converted to a form of fertilizer the plants can use, the nutrient-rich water feeds the plants in hydroponic beds, and the clean water that results is cycled back into the fish tanks.

Mayor Emanuel (who visited The Plant two weeks ago) has expressed his support for projects like this, but the raising and selling of food in the city falls under several jurisdictions in different ways, and 312 sold herbs for four months to local restaurants before having to stop last year. They are working with the city now to get past these hurdles and to prove that a concept like theirs is workable in any urban setting.
Special thanks to Joan Hersh.

Slideshow: Go Inside an Urban Fish Farm of the Future on Chicago’s South Side