In an Old Chicago Slaughterhouse, Produce and Tilapia Grow

With the rise of urban farming in Chicago, efforts at year-round cultivation have increased. The Associated Press checked in on the progress of 312 Aquaponics.

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, says 23-year-old Andrew Fernitz, a biology major in college who is another of the 312 partners.

Local efforts to develop agriculture are both directly aided by and discussed in the seminar SUST 230 Food (offered online this summer). For more information on this or any other of our courses, please visit our Sustainability Studies website, call 1-877-277-5978 (1-877-APPLY RU) or email

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