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Humboldt Park-Raised Tilapia Is Here (And No, It's Not From The Lagoon)

By Janet Rausa Fuller | April 6, 2016 5:54am

Benjamin Kant is the founder of Metropolitan Farms, an aquaponics greenhouse at 4250 W. Chicago Ave. [DNAinfo/Janet Rausa Fuller]

WEST HUMBOLDT PARK — Call it tank-to-table eating.

Tilapia raised right in your backyard — that is, if you live in Humboldt Park — is for sale at Metropolitan Farms, the city’s newest aquaponics farm.

Customers should email their order by mid-week and pick up the fish, plucked from one of six 800-gallon tanks, on Saturdays at the farm, a 10,250-square-foot greenhouse at 4250 W. Chicago Ave. Produce requests can be made the same way.

The fish are $4 a pound, sold whole.

“There is no better way to know your food!” the farm’s founder and CEO Benjamin Kant wrote in a recent email to customers.

Once the outdoor farmers markets begin in May, customers can buy fish there. Metropolitan Farms will be a vendor at the Logan Square market, where it got its start in the fall, plus two or three other markets, Kant said.

Farmers market rules prohibit the sale of fresh fish and Kant doesn’t want to sell them frozen, so customers will be able to pre-order and pick up their fish before the market opens, he said.

The star end product in aquaponics is vegetables, not fish. Currently, the only other retail source in the city for aquaponics-bred tilapia — and only during the summer — is Loyola’s Institute of Environmental Sustainability.

By this time next year, there will be another option. The nonprofit Growing Power, which runs several farms and gardening sites including Iron Street Farm in Bridgeport, is setting up an aquaponics system with four 700-gallon tanks of perch.

The first perch harvest will be next April, according to production manager Laurell Sims. Orders and pickup will likely work similar to Metropolitan Farms. Sims said they might offer a fish share, similar to a "community-supported agriculture" produce box.

Tilapia are hardy fish, as are perch, which make them a prime candidate for aquaponics.

It’s one big water-based loop. The fish live in tanks, where bacteria in the water convert their waste into nutrients. The plants drink up the nutrient-rich water, filtering it back to the fish. (In hydroponics, there are no fish; plants grow in fertilized water.)

Tilapia at Metropolitan Farms live in tanks filled with nutrient-rich water that feeds the plants. [DNAinfo/Janet Rausa Fuller]

This type of farming makes perfect sense to local food advocates, but it’s still a relatively new, and risky, business model. The few for-profit companies in Chicago that tried making a go of it in the past few years, among them Greens and Gills, SkyyGreens and 312 Aquaponics, are no longer in business.

The aquaponics farms at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, Chicago State University and The Plant, a sustainable food facility in the Back of the Yards, are geared toward education, not production (though some of the ag high school's tilapia occasionally make it to DiCola's Seafood, 10754 S. Western Ave., where they sell for $3 a pound whole.)

Loyola’s sustainability hub, which opened in 2013, includes a biodiesel fuel lab and an aquaponics farm with two fish tanks that yields about 500 pounds of produce a year, said Kevin Erickson, who leads the urban agriculture program.

Students donate the produce to food pantries and also sell at the Loyola farmers market. Erickson estimates they’ll sell about 200 fish during this summer's market season.

But fish sales, while a nice perk, are a minor part of the institute's focus, he said. Basically, the tilapia are too valuable to let go.

“The balance in aquaponics is heavily toward plants, not fish output,” Erickson said. “You’re removing fertility from your system when you’re removing fish.”

That’s also why Metropolitan Farms is asking customers to order tilapia in advance.

“We won’t take fish out until we have a buyer for them. Any extras, we bring home and have for dinner,” Kant said.

There’s also a psychological hurdle that makes this tilapia a tougher sell: Cooking whole fish can be intimidating.

But home cooks need not be so skittish. Erickson said gutting isn’t even necessary.

“You can bake it whole,” he said. "It’s encouraging people, so it’s not just that they’re eating tilapia that they can get anywhere. It’s eating this uniquely raised fish and also convincing them they can do it.”

"You can tell the quality from something that's trucked or flown in from a faraway land," said Bob DiCola, owner of Dicola's Seafood.

Last year at Loyola, students grew ginger and lemongrass and gave customers who bought tilapia recipe cards incorporating all three. Kant is making a handout for customers on how to fillet a fish.

In addition to tilapia, Metropolitan Farms grows and sells romaine lettuce, salad mix and a variety of herbs. [DNAinfo/Janet Rausa Fuller]

Kant, 30, a Logan Square resident, honed the idea for a year-round aquaponics greenhouse as a master's of business administration student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. A class assignment to design a business plan turned him onto aquaponics.

His business partner and chief operating officer, Shockey Funke, is a high school friend. In 2014, they broke ground on the vacant lot on Chicago Avenue that long ago had been a dairy plant.

It took a good six months for the fish and the bacteria in the water to develop and grow. Finally, in October, they started selling lettuce and herbs at the indoor Logan Square farmers market.

Suburban grocery chain Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Market and Carnivore in Oak Park also sell Metropolitan’s produce and fish.

Kant said the farm, which is less energy-intensive than an indoor setup under artificial light, has the capacity to produce more than 92,000 romaine heads a year. Other crops growing now include salad mix, three types of basil, chard, kale, shiso and papalo, an obscure Mexican herb.

“My mission is to grow crops that can replace all those imports at the grocery store,” he said.

Six tanks hold tilapia in various stages of maturity. They come in as babies weighing half a gram. It takes up to a year for them to grow to what’s called market size, about 1½ pounds. Past 2 pounds, their efficiency decreases.

"That’s when they’re ready to go on to your dinner plate," Kant said.

Kant is working toward aquaponics certification for the farm from Certified Naturally Grown, an independent program designed for small-scale farms.

Because no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics or GMOs touch Metropolitan’s system, Kant said the fish are of much higher quality — and just tastier — than the imported farmed tilapia typically sold at the grocery store.

“At the end of the process, they just taste like fish, not the fish tank,” he said.

A repurposed trailer functions as the street sign for Metropolitan Farms in West Humboldt Park. [DNAinfo/Janet Rausa Fuller]

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