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Chicago’s Vertical Farm Starts to Bloom

Brian Watkins of 312 Aquaponics checks on the farm's basil

Walking down 47th Street in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, there’s an old meatpacking factory behind a Mexican supermarket and a Marshalls retail store. On top of the building in capital letters is the word “bEER.”

It’s the old Peer Foods factory except someone has turned the “P” upside down. The building looked abandoned and desolate, but the construction workers and handful of cars in the parking lot showed that the old factory is under some new management.

The Plant is a vertical farm and food business incubator that’s owned by John Edel, the executive director, who is also the owner and developer of the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center.

These incubators are for promoting businesses that make sustainable food production.  The Plant’s incubator serves to be a business start-up for several green businesses including beer-brewers, kombucha producers and aquaponics farmers.

Four young, post-graduate friends that wanted their love and interest for aquaponics to become their job recently started a business in the Plant. Mario Spatafora, Andrew Fernitz, Brian Watkins and Arash Amini are the founders of 312 Aquaponics, which started production at the Plant in August 2011.

The company is located on the third floor of the Plant, which is one large room with concrete floors and large windows that overlook the other factories of the neighborhood. There are sounds of water running and  fans blowing over the plants. Barrels hold hundreds of tilapia fish, and several vertical gardening structures grow nine types of vegetables. Large totes have five types of greens growing.

The founders of 312 grew up in neighboring Illinois towns– Northbrook and Glenview. They became friends in high school and kept in touch throughout college. Once they were each done with college, they moved to Bridgeport together. They live two miles away from the Plant and grow chives, tomatoes and basil in a barrel at home.

The men had jobs after college, except for Amini, but were ready to quit once they had enough money to fund their company. They started the aquaponics business after receiving funding from a good friend.

Aquaponics is a closed water loop that integrates the growing of fish and plants. The fish supply the fertilizer for the plants. The plants use that fertilizer, and the water comes back filtered for the fish.

Fernitz, 23, wore work gloves as he arranged plants in their boxes during a December afternoon. He graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a biology degree. After graduation, he decided to bartend to save money for his aquaponics passion.

Each of the founders had their own interest in aquaponics while still in college, except for accounting major, Spatafora, 24, who had no idea what he wanted to do after graduation.

“It was only after [college] that they started tuning me into it,” he said. “I’ve always been a science geek at heart, so it really clicked.”

Spatafora drained the water from a row of plants, which looked like delicious leafs of lettuces, into a large bucket. The tube he used kept spilling out dirty water, but luckily the Plant has floor drains. Spatafora is a short guy with dark, brown hair and glasses.

He graduated from Depaul University in 2009 with an accounting degree. He interned for a tax accounting firm during college and received a job there after graduation. For about 18 months, Spatafora worked in finances before the aquaponics business idea got some traction. Once the guys were funded to start 312, they quit their part-time jobs to fully focus on the company.

“I love being in charge of a living system where there are a lot of parts to balance, but when they come into harmony you get an amazing result in the form of fresh food,” Spatafora said.

Watkins, 23, another accounting grad from University of Illinois at Chicago, became interested in aquaponics because of his vegetarianism. He has short, light brown hair and pushed his glasses up as he worked diligently on planting red mustard seeds in little boxes.

“In my living room, we had a small aquaponics system with 20 fish and 9 square-feet of growing space, it worked phenomenally,” Watkins said.

He grew peas, eggplants, cilantro, tomatoes and other vegetables at home.

“I got tired of doing taxes, and just like Mario, we decided to go full-force and start our own company, just straight out of college,” he said.

The president of 312 is Amini, who designs and engineers the system along with the group’s website.

“I just make sure everyone has everything they need to do their job,” he said. “We all have a different focus, we’re all a very hard-working, strong team.”

One of the new additions to 312 are smaller gardens of micro-greens that sit alone in the corner with bright lights beaming down over little green sprouts. “That’s the prototype 5.0,” Watkins said, laughing.

The micro-greens  can be sold to local restaurants. Josh Myers, 312’s newest and only employee, thought up the idea.

Myers, 23, wore a tan sweater with a black jacket and ironed pants– as if he’s ready to meet some potential clients.

He said he hopes 312 will take off and have larger commercial facilities decked out with grow space.

“It keeps your costs low and you have a lower carbon footprint,” he said, adding that he wants food from aquaponics systems to become a part of people’s diets.

312 has started to make itself known in Chicago’s restaurant industry. The guys sold their vegetables for the first time to the local restaurants Old Town Social and Nana Organic in Bridgeport. The restaurants have become frequent accounts for 312, but with their micro-greens bins of baby leaf lettuces and other veggies, this may open a new market for them.

“We don’t want to make a bad first impression, so we’ve been kind of timid about dumping food on people because if they don’t like it, then chances are we’re not going to get a call back,” Spatafora said.

312’s food is growing faster and tastes even better than before, Spatafora said.

“When you have localized farms close to the restaurants, close to the grocery stores,  you can really funnel that money back into your community,” says Spatafora.

The Back of the Yards neighborhood used to be involved in food production because that’s where the stockyards and meat factories we’re located in the past. The 312 boys want to reshape it with fresh food.

“All the infrastructure for food distribution and ancillary businesses to go with that are all in this area,” says Spatafora.

312’s relationship with the Plant is beneficial. The beer brewers of New Chicago Beer Co. will give left-over grain to 312’s fishes and the CO2 coming off its distilleries will help their plants. 312 gives Arize Kombucha plants for their drinks.

“I couldn’t really think of a better crew of people to be working around,” said Watkins. “Everyone is hard working and dedicated; that makes us more dedicated in what we’re doing, seeing people succeeding all around us.”

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