The Producers

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.

The former Peer meat company was converted to a brewery by simply turning the P upside down.
Building owner John Edel built The Plant’s first tilapia and greens farm ecosystem in the building’s basement.
Arugula growing in the basement.
New Chicago Beer Company is in the process of building out its space in the building. Spent grains from the brewing process will be used to feed the fish.
Edel is still apparently deciding what to do with two huge former smokers. One may become a lounge on this floor.
The first thing you see entering 312 Aquaponics is aquaponic beds fed by pipes from above.
Strawberries growing in the aquaponics beds.
Herbs growing off the waste products produced by the fish tanks. The herbs grow in mats so they can be sold living to restaurants and snipped as needed for the ultimate level of freshness. 
Other plants are grown in small planters with clay balls for the roots.
Andrew Fernitz in front of the four tanks holding approximately 150 tilapia each.
The water moves in a way that mimics the fish’s natural river or lake environment, keeping them healthy.
A whole ecosystem: waste at the bottom washes from the blue tanks into the black one, then is digested in the green tank. The nutrient-rich water then flows into the aquaponic beds, the plants absorb the nutrients and the clean water goes back into the tanks. Only about 20-30 gallons of new water is needed a week, far less than any other form of fish or plant farming would require.
Tilapia can have a muddy flavor depending on how it’s raised, but Fernitz says chefs have praised the clean taste of their fish.
Slideshow: Go Inside an Urban Fish Farm of the Future on Chicago’s South Side