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Emily Gadek and Michelle M. Schaefer/MEDILL

Take a tour of an aquaponics farm with Professor Alison Gise Johnson of Chicago State University and Frank Lockom of the Plant. Both help run research farms, growing leafy greens such as mint, basil, chard, and lettuce with waste water from aquaculture.

Farming inside the box: Urban agriculture of aquaponics

by Emily Gadek and Michelle M. Schaefer
Feb 25, 2011


Emily Gadek and Michelle M. Schaefer/MEDILL

Basil Yields; James Rakocy University of the Virgin Islands, 2004


Courtesy Blake Kurasek

Architect Blake Kurasek's concept for a vertical farm and living space in Lake Michigan. He was inspired by Dickson Despommier's idea for a vertical farm.     


Courtesy of Growing Power

An architect's rendering of the proposed five-story vertical farm at Growing Power's Milwaukee headquarters. Growing Power in currently operating out of traditional greenhouses in Milwaukee. 


Michelle M. Schaefer/MEDILL

The Plant is retrofitting a former pork processing plant. Much of the original equipment is still in place.

Snow falls outside a nondescript one-story warehouse on Chicago’s South Side. But inside, it's the growing season. Hundreds of fish swarm and fight for food in tanks surrounded by beds of basil, rainbow chard, and mint. The scene may hold the key to creating a year-round source of fresh, local food in Chicago.

The warehouse is Chicago State University’s Aquaponics Facility, the first urban aquaponics farm in Chicago.  The facility may be the first step in spurring a whole new type of urban farming in the city.

“Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture, which is the raising of fish, and hydroponics, which is the raising of plants using water. The system is a closed system in that the water from the fish which is enriched by their waste is actually used to fertilize the plants,” said Dr. Alison Gise-Johnson, director of outreach for the Aquaponics Facilty.

Aquaponics is being seized by urban agriculture advocates as a way to bring fresh food into inner city neighborhoods and reduce the environmental impact of importing food to cities.  

Illinois is a leading farm state, exporting $4 billion worth of agricultural goods each year, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture. But that number is dwarfed by what Illinois imports. Illinois residents spend $48 billion annually on food, 96 percent of which is produced outside of the state, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. 

“We forget that when we go to a big box store, that we’re buying our corn from Chile, and that means there’s a farmer in Illinois that’s not selling food locally,” said Alderman Freddrenna Lyle. An urban farming advocate whose 6th ward is on the South Side, Lyle pushed for CSU’s experimental aquaponic facility.  

“The power of it is that we can do it year round and we don’t have to worry about soil quality. As you know, many parts of the Chicago land area have been industrial sites and so there is severe contamination in the soil and until we can re-mediate it we need other ways of growing healthy plants,” said Dr. Gise Johnson.  Because an aquaponics system produces year-round, yields can be from 2-10 times higher than traditionally farmed land.

But for now, aquaponics may remain just an experiment in Chicago, since zoning laws prevent fish from being raised to sell commercially within city limits.  Currently, CSU’s Aquaponic Facility is technically a research farm.  New establishments seeking to run aquaponics systems for profit face significant hurdles.

Aquaponics is an ancient idea.  The Aztecs practiced a form of it, with growing platforms suspended in outdoor fishponds. And there are already several rural aquaponics farms in the Midwest, including AquaRanch in Illinois and Sweetwater Organics in Wisconsin.  But Lyle and other advocates hope to see aquaponics take hold in the city, in the form of vertical farms.

Vertical farming was first championed nationally by Dickson Despommier, an environmental health expert at Columbia University.  The basic premise is simple: to save land and increase crop production by growing food crops efficiently in multistory greenhouses.  The idea inspired architects around the world to conceptualize 100 story glass towers growing enough food with high-tech hydroponic or aeroponic (suspended plant) systems to feed entire cities. But until recently, vertical farming has remained just a theory.

“They’re wonderful mind games,” Despommier said, “like what could I do if I could do anything
I wanted.”

For now, those 100 story towers are impractical, but the idea of growing produce year-round has taken hold in cities such as Chicago and Milwaukee, where produce is routinely shipped from locations 1,000 miles or more away. Two organizations, Milwaukee’s Growing Power and the Plant Chicago, are looking to turn the talk into action and create vertical farms using aquaponic sytems.  

The Plant, located in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, could hardly look more different than Despommier’s original vision of a light-filled greenhouse.  

“My interest in industrial history goes back to when I was a kid and imagining plants growing in factories,” said John Edel, a green entrepreneur and founder of the Plant Chicago. “Not food crops necessary, but more like palms.  More like going into the Garfield Park Conservatory.”

Located in a shuttered, former pork processing plant in what used to be the Union Stock Yards, the building’s harsh exterior requires a more technological approach to farming than simple sunlight. For now, Edel’s farm consists of four tanks containing 250 tilapia, growing in an underground aquaponics system in the building’s basement.  

The fish tanks provide water and nutrients for the nearby plant beds, which in turn filter the water. Edel replaced natural sunlight with energy efficient LED grow lights, and planted leafy greens such as bib lettuce, arugula, basil, chives, kale and chard.

His end goal is to have half of the building as growing space, some dedicated to a nonprofit research farm run with help of students at the Illinois Institute of Technology, some to for-profit produce growers.  

“The non-profit farm is focused on creating the technology using a lot of recycled materials to do it, using as little energy as possible and doing an integration of engineering between farming and industrial activities,” said Edel.

Growing Power, a national non-profit organization with a similar vision, hopes to break ground on a five story vertical greenhouse at it’s Milwaukee, Wis. headquarters sometime next year. The transparent structure is not a far cry from Despommier’s ideal, but it’s being tested at a much smaller scale.  

“I think we need to first test it and figure out how to grow food in something like that. That has never been tested. That’s the kind of work that we do. There’s going to be some research, education and some projection, some realistic projection,” said Allen

Allen recognized that the original conceptual ideas where proposed by architects and not farmers. He believes that if his facility proves to be profitable, there’s no reason why it can’t be done on a larger scale.

“This will be a key step in growing the good food revolution, as I call it. To be able to have this facility, it becomes more than just talk. We’re taking a step forward instead of just talking about it, because people have been talking about this for a long time,” said Allen.

If run correctly, aquaponic systems can be extremely efficient, since the only major input needed is food for the fish. Their waste then provides nutrients for plants, and the plants filter out nitrates and amonionia that can harm the fish as the water returns to the tank.

“You can turn waste into nutrients,” said Kevin Fitzsimmons, an aquaponics researcher at the University of Arizona, in Tuscon. “All you’re doing is adding a little bit of water to account for transpiration.”

But critics say the expense of creating and maintaining an aquaponic system, which rely on a steady supply of electricity to run grow lights, heaters, and pumps, make vertical farming too expensive to ever be practical.   

“Vertical farming is one of those concepts that sound good. But when you do a deeper analysis, it’s not the magic bullet that it first appears to be,“ said Bruce Bugbee, a crop physiologist at Utah State University in Logan, Utah.  

He argues that even alternative energy sources such as solar or nuclear power could end up destroying far more habitat than vertical farming would save.  “The concept has a significant environmental impact. Many people argue that it is environmentally irresponsible,” he said.

Even vertical farming’s supporters acknowledge finding a cheap and reliable source of power is the chief challenge in making aquaponics work as a business.  Both Growing Power and the Plant hope to use on-site anaerobic detesters to convert food and plant waste into power for their systems.  CSU will begin growing beets this summer to convert into alcohol to power its generators.

Skeptics also point to the high start-up costs. A vertical farmer not only has to pay for energy, but also land and the cost of retrofitting or building a structure to farm in.

“I don’t know how to avoid the initial expense of any invention," said Despommier. “ But when you do the number crunching on vertical farms, it doesn’t matter how much it costs, but how long it takes to recoup it.”

Edel expects to make most of his money renting out much of the building to “food business incubators” such as local breweries, bakers and a kombucha maker.  He’s also renting out floor space in the Plant to 312 Aquaponics, a for-profit aquaponics start up focusing on selling systems to other farmers.

“Farming is a low profit margin business, so it’s not likely that we’re going to make any money growing crops, not for a while,” said Edel.

Will Allen said Growing Power’s not-for-profit facility should earn at least $5 per square foot of growing space. The building will have a base of 16,000 square feet, but Allen hopes to maximize that space by utilizing the same multi-level growing system he uses in his current greenhouses. A multi-level growing space is created by using a three-tiered aquaponics system and hanging plants.

Growing Power’s greenhouse will be a multi-use facility as well with offices, a commercial-grade teaching kitchen, a retail store and room to host workshops. The facility is estimated to cost about $9 million and the organization has budgeted another $3 million for other costs during the first few years of operation. Allen is currently in the midst of a capital campaign to raise money for the project.

“I think these buildings have to be multi-use to cash flow them. So we’re going to figure out how to cash flow the building and extrapolate that say into a 50-story structure, then people will have a baseline of what it costs to run one of these facilities,” said Allen.

Growing Power worked with the city of Milwaukee in order to obtain the proper zoning, though city officials willingly approved the proposal. Allen said that the facility will be a great asset to the neighborhood.

“Our city leaders did it, so why not do it. It’s going to enhance the neighborhood and bring a lot of pride to the neighborhood,” said Allen.  

“This is a new way of farming, a new industry that we’re creating and it’s exciting because everybody's talking about it all over the country and all over the world,” he said. “We’re losing our rural ag land, so farming in the city closer to where most of the populations are moving around the world makes a lot of sense.”