Nestled into a suburban warehouse south of Chicago, FarmedHere is a 90,000 square foot vertical indoor farm run by aquaponics, or the growing of fish and plants together—the largest of its kind in the United States. The project began in 2011 in an effort to promote a more sustainable way of growing food in America in the rise of climate change and population growth. Today, the farm focuses on growing sprouts of salad greens and basil.
FarmedHere uses both certified organic vertical farming and aquaponics in order to reduce energy, waste, and costs related to food production. Vertical farming is as straight-forward as it sounds: trays of crops are stacked on irrigated shelving up to six trays high. Farming in this way allows for high crop yields while using very little space and land. Because the plants are not actually grown in the ground, FarmedHere uses aquaponics to supply the plants with ample nutrients. Aquaponics is an alternative agriculture practice that mimics natural ecosystems: large tanks house fish (in this case, tilapia) whose waste is pumped through irrigation tubes straight to the roots of crops to be used as fertilizer. The plants purify the water by taking up the excess nutrients, and the water is then recirculated back to the fish tanks to complete the cycle. The plants at FarmedHere use absolutely zero chemical pesticides or fertilizers, which is easy to do in an indoor setting away from bugs and damaging weather. The farm also mitigates transportation costs by only selling produce locally.
This technique is nothing new. Aquaponics systems date back to the time of the Aztecs, who created small farms called
chinampas in shallow lake beds to utilize the symbiotic relationship of fish and plants. Rice paddies throughout China use a similar approach as well. Today, there are countless aquaponic farms across America, all operating in urban environments to provide food to local and national communities. What sets FarmedHere apart from the competition is its unique hiring program based on education of the underrepresented youth, making the farm an advocate for urban social justice in addition to food justice. The farm partners with a local urban agriculture training program that helps minority groups and even ex-offenders learn necessary skills to work in the expanding industry.
Aquaponics uses considerably less land and water resources—both controversial and problematic issues in modern agriculture. This alternative agriculture systems works in urban environments, making fresh food available to cities that often lack equal access to fruits and vegetables. As FarmedHere demonstrates, urban farming can also be used as a tool for building stronger communities and better local economies. Although there a strong ecological benefits, the initial costs and labor to set up an aquaponics operation can be extremely high, with estimates being around $20,000 for a small greenhouse-sized system.
There is a high-risk cost involved in aquaponics as well: if a small component of the system breaks, a farmer could quickly lose their business. Like any enterprise, risks and rewards must be carefully weighed. Aquaponics is not the complete solution for modern agriculture. The system relies on an industrialized approach to raising food, which has potential to promote unethical labor conditions and the use of damaging antibiotics and chemical fertilizers. Yet if operated similarly to FarmedHere, the future of food just might lie in this biodynamic approach.