312 Aquaponics is an urban fish farm located in The Plant, a nonprofit dedicated “to promoting sustainable food production, entrepreneurship, and building reuse through education, research and development.” Brian Watkins, Co-Founder of 312 Aquaponics, invited me to tour the building, learn about their operation, and try the produce.
We started by walking past the industrial remains of the former meat-packing company that still cluttered the basement where 312 Aquaponics keeps its raised tanks of tilapia. It was cheaper to leave the equipment than to root it out of the building. The thick walls and floor drains also remain, but at least the former is useful in maintaining constant temperatures for the delicate agricultural ecosystems that Watkins and his cohorts build.
Perhaps surprisingly, small micro-greens and herbs will be the main product of company — not the fish that provide the fertilizer. As of now, neither the produce nor the fish can be sold because of its murky and indeterminate status in city and state health and food laws. Agencies have not yet figured out how they want to regulate for-profit, indoor urban farming. However, 312 Aquaponics isn’t waiting to build a market for local produce. They are busy donating as much of their product to potential restaurants and charitable organizations as possible. When it becomes legal for them to sell, they plan to turn the created demand into a flood of steady customers.
In the meantime, Watkins is busy developing a monitoring system for the health of the aquaponics system so issues ranging from bacteria to low oxygen levels can be caught quickly and dealt with before they impact the greens or the fish. He and his team also continue work on making their current system more efficient by reducing water loss and maximizing electricity use. They share their knowledge through a mix of educational outreach for visitors of The Plant and consulting services for larger institutions like area universities.
After showing me the nuts and bolts of the 312 Aquaponics operation, we got down to the serious business of sampling the goods. Floating beds of greens are stacked in racks with the baby plants up top and the larger plants on bottom. It’s easy to lift and move the containers downwards as the plants mature. Everything I tried was excellent, and I’m especially jealous that Watkins has over ten types of basil thriving indoors. Squirrels plagued me all summer, and I could barely get enough basil for a batch of pesto.
There are certainly advantages to having your own set-up. And despite the long hours and legal changes that need to happen for him to turn a profit, Watkins seems happy with his status as urban farmer. I’m happy to see the potential for people like Watkins to succeed not only because it creates a better basil supply for me, but also because it reduces the total carbon footprint of our food supply and makes large urban centers more capable of feeding themselves.Besides 312 Aquaponics, The Plant also houses the New Chicago Brewing Company (beer), The Living Well Brewery (fermented tea), SkyyGreens (organic produce), and Windy City Worms (red wigglers).
For more information on 312 Aquaponics and other companies involved in urban agriculture, please visit The Plant’s site.