Aquaponic Farming: The Garden of the Future

By Sarah Freeman | January 8, 2014 By Sarah Freeman  |  January 8, 2014
Photo by: Nick Murway

The short version of this story sounds something like David Ellis wants to save the world.

The longer version starts in 1999, when his close friend passed away form sudden cardiac arrest on the basketball court of his high school. This led Ellis to launch project ADAM, named after his fallen friend and standing for Automatic Defibrillators in Adam's Memory. His first entrepreneurial endeavor led to these life-saving devices being placed in schools and other public areas around the country.

Next on Ellis' save-the-world list was helping people eat better. After two years of research and development on local and organic food trends, he noticed that there was a need for more indoor urban farms. Enter Greens & Gills, Chicago's first aquaponic farm, a farm that takes byproducts from fish to grow plants without the use of soil. It's a beautiful and efficient process that yields massive quantities of leafy greens and herbs that satisfy chefs' and diners' need for local and delicious produce.

Greens & Gills is located in the burgeoning urban farm community The Plant. We stopped by the garden of the future to see how the system works and how it is feeding Chicago.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    Greens & Gills can be found in the basement of The Plant, a facility in the Back of the Yards neighborhood that is just as innovative as the aquaponic farm itself. Built into an empty warehouse, The Plant aims to foster tenants such as bakers, brewers, growers and an indoor/outdoor farm to work together in an energy efficient and sustainable way that minimizes waste.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    At the end of the day, Green & Gills is just as much a business concerned with economic growth as it is with plant growth. The company can produce 13 times the yield per acre over a traditional farm because it eliminates extraneous variables such as weather and soil conditions. 

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    Ellis did not design the system - he let the experts at Nelson and Pade Inc. design it for him. It features aquaponic tanks to raise the fish, filtration tanks and grow beds. It took a year to perfect the process and allow Greens & Gills to become the first licensed aquaponic farm in Chicago.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    Greens & Gills uses tilapia to fuel its indoor farm. This is the most common breed of fish used in aquaponic systems because they are resilient. There is a common misconception that fish waste is used to feed the plants, but it is in fact merely the microbes that are filtered out of the fish byproduct and fed into the plant systems.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    The fish are the key difference between hydroponics and aquaponics. Many chefs scoff at hydroponicly grown produce because it lacks the earthiness of farm-grown produce. Aquaponicly grown produce, however, pulls bacteria from the fish, bacteria that replicate the enzymes and sugars facilitated by soil.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    The life cycle of these plants is simple. Basil, for example, spends two weeks sprouting in the plant table, then two weeks growing under the LED lights, until finally maturing for a final two weeks in the rafts. The basil is harvested and packaged for nearby restaurants such as Siena Tavern for pizza and pasta.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    Both the greens and the tilapia are used in local restaurants. Greens from basil to sorrel are purchased by chefs at Senza, Park Grill, Tru, Allium and Henri and even more casual establishments like Dimo's Pizza. The fish are snatched up by restaurants such as Bull & Bear for fish tacos.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    In addition to leafy greens and basil, Greens & Gills produces various micro greens. These greens - from leaves of carrots to celery, as well as more gourmet varieties - are grown in vertical shelves in the back of the facility. The team also recently began experimenting with produce such as tomato plants.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    "Dave's lettuces don't need much to make them shine. The same can be said about all the other micro greens I get from him," said Senza's executive chef Noah Sandoval. "They are the highest quality I've ever seen. The pea tendrils are sweet and salty, the anise hyssop is flavorful but not overpowering, the mustard greens have spice but are not 'spicy.' We rely heavily on balance, and he seems to do the same."

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    Check out the produce in action. Sandoval deconstructed the flavors of one of his favorite guilty-pleasure food items - a Burger King Whopper - to make this dish that uses Wagyu tartare, mustard ice cream, beef-fat aïoli and red-cabbage purée. The plate is finished with a local micro greens salad featuring greens from Greens & Gills.

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