Venture: Is that a fish tank in your garden?

May 16, 2011

By Linda Paul and Susie An

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(Photo by Linda Paul)
An vertical garden grows in a boarded up building on Chicago's South Side.

Chicago's most significant economic news this week may be the change on the fifth floor of City Hall. When Rahm Emanuel takes over as mayor, he’ll have lots of big decisions: How can the schools get better? How can the streets get safer? 

And should Chicagoans be allowed to farm fish?

To a small, but increasing group of entrepreneurs, that last is a critical question. 

They want to start aquaponic farms in vacant industrial buildings. But as businessman Myles Harston knows, it's going to take a change in zoning to make aquaponics a growing concern.

Harston leads the way into a three-story building in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.  It has boarded up windows, tall ceilings, and from the outside anyway,  it looks completely empty.

PAUL: I feel like I’m entering an experimental theater. Like usually when I go through black curtains like this, you know, people are in elaborate costumes.

HARSTON:   It’s kinda like that, I guess.   

Now, we’ve entered a different zone. This is a small urban test farm with rumbling pumps, a big fish tank, filters, energy efficient LED lighting and vertically stacked tubs of  luscious organic greens.

HARSTON:  So we go from the culture tank to the clarifier to the bio filter, directly to the grow beds.

Harston is a pioneer and cheerleader for a relatively new technology called aquaponics. It combines raising fish in tanks--with hydroponics, which is growing plants in water instead of soil. Aquaponics introduces fish into the process. And where there’s fish… there’s fish poop. 

HARSTON:  So we feed the fish... the fish feed the plants and the plants clean up the water for the fish. With this system we don’t really need to discard anything…we’re utilizing everything.

The greens -- like basil and arugula -- are grown free of pesticides and chemicals. The other product they’re raising-- tilapia-- is chemical free, too.

HARSTON:  It’s actually the cleanest fish you’ll find. No, it won’t have any sex reverse hormones.. it doesn’t have any antibiotics in the feed.

No “sex reverse“ hormones, he said. Did you catch that? Now here’s some little-known trivia that may impress your friends, or gross ‘em out.

Some of the fish that make it onto our dinner plates have undergone a sort of  chemical “sex change” operation to select their gender. With tilapia, for instance, males are often preferred because they grow faster. Harston rejects hormones, in part because they don’t affect just the fish…

HARSTON:  Then that’s in the food supply. It’s in the water being discarded, it’s going into our environment and it seems like we have enough of that manipulation goin’ on, we just don’t need anymore.

For years Harston ran an aquaponics farm in downstate  Illinois and he’s helped set up aquaponics facilities around the country, including one at Chicago State University.

Last October he joined up with a couple of business partners to try their hand at vertical farming in Chicago. They want to use old industrial buildings, stack their growing beds vertically and grow chemical-free greens all year round.

HARDEJ:  Now here because the environment is controlled, we have much greater yields.. So there is a far better return per invested dollar in aquaponics systems versus traditional agriculture.

That’s Paul Hardej, CEO of their company, called City Microfarms. While some farming experts are skeptical of such rosy projections, Hardej, as you might expect, is undeterred.

He talks up aquaponics as an opportunity to bring jobs to Chicago while keeping  food production local.

HARDEJ:  So imagine that we’re taking a farm from Mexico and bringing it to downtown Chicago. Where we can grow basil and instead of flying it on the plane and driving it for fifteen hundred miles in a truck and polluting the world, we’re growing fresh basil right here downtown Chicago.  And this fresh plant can be harvested today and delivered to a local restaurant the same day. 

There’s at least one little hitch in this idyllic vision. And that’s that Chicago currently prohibits the raising of livestock.

HARDEJ:  Livestock means cows and pigs, and chickens and raising animals in your backyard. And I think it makes a lot of sense.  However that also prohibits us from raising fish inside tanks.

So for this business to get off the ground they’re going to need a change in the zoning law.

HARDEJ:  We would like to do this officially and get a permit for that. Well now we can’t because  the zoning ordinance doesn’t allow livestock.

But that could change. In a blueprint for his administration's priorities, soon-to-be Mayor Emanuel last week pledged to  "fix zoning regulations that limit or prohibit urban agriculture and aquaponics." So Hardej and Harston could soon be taking produce and fish to market if that happens.  

HARDEJ:  As soon as the zoning allows, we are ready to go!

Their test farm is already selling some greens to specialty shops around town under the brand name “HERE.”  But they want to scale up. It’ll take maybe 30,000 square feet for an economically viable indoor farm, they say.

There’s need for many of these farms, they think.  After all, nearly all the produce and fish we eat in Chicago is brought in from other states and other countries.  That leaves lots of room for local food production.

And now,  we hope you're ready to do the Dougie in some formalwear, because for today's windy indicator we're budgeting for prom.

The school year is wrapping up and that means high school seniors are shelling out the cash...or their parent's cash...for one last hurrah.

How much is it going to cost?

BIEDZIO: A lot.

That's Chicagoan Dorota Biedzio, a Northside College Prep senior getting ready to celebrate one of the last milestones of her high school years, but with some budget savvy that's pretty adult.

BIEDZIO: Yeah, I have a budget. I don't want to go over $200.

With  help from her parents and money she saved  from last summer's job, she’s itemizing.

AN: What do you have to pay for?

BIEDZIO: My own ticket since I don't have a date, so that's around $85. And then my dress, my hair, my make-up, nails and the limo.

Let's tally it up...

An $85 prom ticket--that includes dinner, dancing and Shedd Aquarium exhibits.

BIEDZIO: Who has prom in the Shedd Aquarium? I'm just picturing wall to wall aquariums. And it's just going to be so amazing.

Seventy dollars for a sparkly purple dress bought on sale.

Zero dollars for make-up and nails.

BIEDZIO: I just youtube tutorials on how to do my makeup.

Forty bucks for a side updo.

BIEDZIO: I can't really do my hair, it's one of my worst areas. So I'm going to get that done professionally.

And arriving in style with a group –around $25 a person.

A reality check to her budget: Biedzio's about $20 over.

Still, that's about $100 less than what she spent last year.

And it  IS senior prom…a onetime cost for a lasting memory.

Next week, our Windy Indicator sizes up the Oprah economy.