Partnering for Twenty-first-Century Food Technology

A partial overview of the 312 Aquaponics operation.

A partial overview of the 312 Aquaponics operation.

It may seem like something out of a science-fiction movie, but the start-up venture on the third floor of The Plant, a reclaimed food-processing facility in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, just may herald the future of urban agriculture.

Aquaponics technology is an alternate way of growing food that combines aquaculture, or fish farming, with hydroponics, which is raising plant life in water as opposed to having soil as your medium. The hybrid technology has been around for some time—the Aquaponics Journal began publishing in 1997. Now, with growing concern over global food supply and policy issues, this futuristic approach to farming has been experiencing increased international advocacy and media attention.

“Our company, 312 Aquaponics, began as an impetus to change the food system,” said Arash Amini (physics 2010), who—with fellow LAS alumnus Andrew Fernitz (biological sciences 2010), UIC alumnus Brian Watkins (accounting 2010) and Mario Spatafora (DePaul, accounting 2009)—founded the venture as a Limited Liability Company while still students. 

The 312 Aquaponics partners (left to right): Andrew Fernitz, Arash Amini, Mario Spatafora, Brian Watkins.

The 312 Aquaponics partners (left to right): Andrew Fernitz, Arash Amini, Mario Spatafora, Brian Watkins

The quartet of scientific innovators and business entrepreneurs all hail from the northern suburbs. Amini and Watkins attended Glenbrook South High School; Fernitz and Spatafora are alumni of Glenbrook North. Their personal and professional relationships developed during college through mutual friends and a shared interest in using science and technology to solve social issues.

“I would go to the Re-Thinking Soup programs at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum and meet all these people who were involved in the local food movement,” explained Amini. “That program helped catapult us from an idea to a business.”

In spring 2010 the friends attended the UIC Family Farmed Expo and met Myles Harston, who was designing an aquaponics system for the biology department at Chicago State University. They signed on to help build the system. It was an experience that helped them build their own expertise—and further connect with the urban agriculture movement.

“They were enthusiastic learners and a great help as I was working to construct the facility,” said Harston, founder of AquaRanch and an active player with the Aquaponics Association and City Micro Farms. “The 312 team clearly has energy and a willingness to learn—qualities that will help them succeed as entrepreneurs in this new, responsible farming technology.”

Amini and Fernitz examine tilapia for growth, and to project harvest dates.

Amini and Fernitz examine tilapia for growth, and to project harvest dates.

Amini checks out the roots growing in on a bed of Marshall lettuce plants.

Amini checks out the roots growing in on a bed of Marshall lettuce plants.

“With our sustainable 312 Aquaponics technique, you have a re-circulating system where the fish waste goes into a filtration and converting system that turns the waste into fertilizer. This fertilizer is used to feed the plants, which live on hydroponic rafts,” explained Watkins. “The plant roots absorb the fertilizer and clean the water that then re-circulates back to the fish tanks in a closed ecological loop.”

The ecological loop—or “aquapods,” designed by 312—consist of tanks of tilapia, and tray after tray of leafy greens, including lettuce and several varieties of basil, floating in a deep-water flow system under grow lights. The facility also boasts research and development units where bigger plants including tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are taking hold in beds of gravel, fed by the same fish-fertilized water as the deep-water system.

“People hassle us about growing inside, but, in Chicago, if you want consistent, locally-grown produce throughout the year, you’ve got to look at alternative farming methods,” said Fernitz. “The scalable prototype system we’ve designed at 312 is able to grow all year round with consistent conditions because we’ve created an environment that monitors water quality and light quality. We’ll also be monitoring air quality. All the parameters for growing a plant are nailed down.  Aquaponics is a natural system in a controlled environment. You don’t need chemical herbicides or fertilizers or pesticides because you don’t have issues with soil or water quality, weather conditions, insects and other predators.” 

Fernitz checks nitrate levels (water quality) in the system mixing tank.

Fernitz checks nitrate levels (water quality) in the system mixing tank.

“We are in the process of becoming a Certified Naturally Grown producer,” noted Amini. “CNG is a grassroots effort to provide the same thing for consumers as an organic certification, but it’s not insanely expensive and filled with bureaucratic loopholes. It’s a movement that is sweeping small-scale organic farms and local food producers who want to commit to organic standards but don’t have the infrastructure to meet the requirements of the USDA’s National Organic Program.”

The partners stress that what they offer is a demonstration site and a future aquaponics farming training center.  They explained that the 312 system is scalable to each farmer/customer’s needs. “An individual homeowner could set up a system in their basement to produce food—fish and leafy greens—to feed the family,” said Fernitz. “A mom and pop enterprise could set up a system adequate to supply these foodstuffs to several local grocery stores. The system could be scaled up so that, hypothetically, Kraft Foods could launch an aquaponics division for producing fresh-farmed fish and vegetables. What 312 is selling is the system for aquaponics farming that will meet producers’ business goals—design, build, setup and train. There’s an analogy here to setting up a computer system in the old days.”

Watkins adjusts settings on the biofiltration unit, part of the system that converts the fish waste into fertilizer.

Watkins adjusts settings on the biofiltration unit, part of the system that converts the fish waste into fertilizer.

“You can think of this as the first biological computer,” added Amini. “We have the hardware, the software and the interface. It’s huge and cumbersome right now, but in 20 years it will be something we can’t even imagine.”

Advocates for aquaponics credit the technology with the ability to solve problems ranging from soil erosion to global hunger and food security issues. The 312 partners cite the benefits of raising crops without chemicals and the environmental and economic benefits of local production.

“On average, produce sold in Chicago travels 1,500 miles to get here,” said Fernitz, noting the carbon footprint such a trip engenders. “We only use 3% of the water that a conventional farming method would use to grow the same volume of plants and we’ve created the perfect conditions for the plants. This results in a 30-40% increased maturation speed and yields of three to 18 times what they would be if grown under conventional outdoor conditions. Because we don’t use chemicals like conventional hydroponics technology does, we get indoor yields with an outdoor taste.”

312 Aquaponics is located at The Plant, a building being reclaimed for food business incubation in an economically depressed area of the city.

312 Aquaponics is located at The Plant, a building being reclaimed for food business incubation in an economically depressed area of the city.

“Because of the fast growth and increased yields, aquaponics can produce food at affordable prices while maintaining profitability for the farmers,” noted Watkins.

“Everyone talks about food deserts, but an underlying cause of this social problem is tax deserts,” said Amini. “There’s a cycle when an area is economically depressed—no one has the money to buy fresh food even if it were available in the area. We can solve the problem by reclaiming unused and abandoned industrial buildings for indoor farming, creating local food and local jobs in the green industry.”

On September 8, the City Council and Mayor Rahm Emanuel approved an amendment to the Urban Agriculture Zoning Code  that will allow for the expansion of community gardening and urban farming within city limits. The new provisions specifically allow for aquaponics. 

“Our vision over the next three to five years is for there to be a thriving urban-agriculture technology park right here in Back of the Yards,” said Watkins.

Photos by Matthew Kaplan