In an old Chicago meat plant, greens and fish grow
By MARTHA IRVINE, AP National Writer – 1 day ago
CHICAGO (AP) — They call this place the Back of the Yards, a neighborhood in the middle of the city once filled with acres and acres of stockyards.
In their heyday, those stockyards gave Chicago a reputation as the world's meat-packing capital — but also as an environmental and health horror brought to life in the stark images of Upton Sinclair's novel "The Jungle."
A few remnants of that industry remain here today. But the stockyards are long gone, replaced by an industrial park and a mindset that, from now on, Chicago will try to move past those images.
Now, you will find a jungle of a very different kind here.
It's on the third floor of an old meat-packing plant, a humid hothouse, of sorts, filled with rows of greens and sprouts, even exotic white strawberries. Nearby, in large blue barrels, lurk tilapia, fish native to tropical regions.
It's all part of the fledgling world of urban "aquaponics," vertical farms set up in old warehouses, where plants and fish are raised symbiotically. The idea is that water containing fish excrement is used to feed and fertilize the plants, which then filter that water before it goes, through a series of pipes, back to the fish.
"I never really saw myself going into farming — but this was an opportunity to try something different," says Mario Spatafora, a 24-year-old, spectacle-wearing accountant by training who is vice president of finances at this new Back of the Yards company, known as 312 Aquaponics. The company hopes it will soon be selling fish and vegetable greens to restaurants and at farmer's markets in the Chicago area.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a fan of vertical farming, has noticed and taken an interest in aquaponics.
"The mayor correctly believes that it can have a tremendous impact on these neighborhoods, both in terms of jobs and healthy food," says his spokesman Tom Alexander.
Emanuel recently visited 312 Aquaponics, which shares its old meat-packing plant building with such tenants as the Living Well Brewery, where fermented tea called kombucha is made, and the New Chicago Beer Co., a microbrewery that will open later this year.
The sunny space that 312 Aquaponics occupies has high ceilings and brick floors and warm, moist air. In it, visitors find rows of flats under grow lights. Many of those flats are filled with lettuce and "microgreens," tiny plants, such as basil or beets, that are grown closely together in hydroponic containers and used much like sprouts in salads and sandwiches.
Once the plants are ready for market, the flats will be covered and distributed to restaurants live so they stay as fresh as possible,...
"Technically, we're a farm," Spatafora says. "But nothing in the Chicago business code regulates farming. The closest thing they've got is a restaurant, and clearly, we're not a restaurant."
On the Net:
■312 Aquaponics site: http://www.312ap.com/home/
■Growing Power: http://www.growingpower.org/
■Sweet Water Organics: http://sweetwater-organic.com/