Jolanta Hardej is a farmer. That might not seem unusual, let alone newsworthy, but Hardej’s farm isn’t in what most people think of as farm country. It’ isn’t in the verdant fields of Iowa or Kansas. It isn’t in California’s Central Valley or the Garden State, New Jersey. No, her farm is in Chicago. Oh, and did I mention that Hardej’s farm is inside and vertical?
She is CEO of FarmedHere, part of the rapidly growing (pun intended) urban farm movement. Her company has transformed what used to be an abandoned warehouse in Chicago’s Bedford Park neighborhood into a 90,000 square foot agricultural oasis. It’s the largest vertical farm in the country, and has recently been awarded Organic Certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Bedford Park facility, one of three operated by FarmedHere, promises to produce a million pounds of chemical and pesticide-free leafy greens, including basil, arugula and mint.
The driving forces for the urban farm movement are consumer demand for pesticide and herbicide free food and the need to reduce the carbon footprint of traditional agricultural. In addition to the carbon intensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, current agricultural practices have enormous transportation costs to bring crops to distant markets. As Hardej points out on the FarmedHere web site, “On average a head of lettuce travels 1,200 miles to reach your plate, our greens travel just across Chicago.”
So far so good, but that all begs the question, why is the farm vertical? Instead of growing plants in traditional fields or beds, in order to save space, FarmedHere grows them in multiple vertical racks using a technique called aquaponics. It combines the soil-less growing practices of hydroponics with fish farming, known as aquaculture. Not only do you get fresh herbs and vegetables, but fish too. Combining the two also eliminates a number of disadvantages and gives you the best parts of both.
Hydroponics involves growing plants without soil. It allows the grower to maximize growing conditions for the plants and therefore increase output, but it requires fertilizers, often chemical fertilizers, to be added to the growing medium. Aquaponics is the growing of fish, and it has great potential to satisfy the worlds growing appetite for seafood. Unfortunately, when done improperly, it can cause severe environmental problems, such as the destruction of mangrove swamps or other sensitive areas, and overfishing of species used to feed the aquacultured fish.
In an aquaponic setup, both these problems are solved. The fish do just what you’d expect. They poop, but these waste products supply the fertilizer for the plants. Meanwhile, as the waste containing water from the fish is circulated through the plants’ growing beds, it is filtered, and can be returned, cleaned and ready to the fish, in a closed loop. Not only does this reduce the use of fertilizers, but surprisingly, growing fish reduces the use of water. According to the National Geographic Society, it takes approximately 1,800 gallons of water to produce each pound of beef we eat. At the University of Maryland Aquaculture Research Center in Baltimore, using closed loop systems, they have managed to produce a pound of fish with only 4 gallons of water.
The only major down side to these sorts of indoor vertical farms is the power needed to provide the plants with light. Currently FarmedHere and other indoor facilities use florescent lights to give the plants the light they need to grow. That requires a substantial amount of electricity. Potentially, LED lights could be used to provide the required light with much less electricity, but the folks at FarmedHere are working on another solution. You know all that fish poop I mentioned earlier. Not only does it provide the plants with fertilizer, but it can be fed into bioreactors to produce fuel. The bacteria in the bioreactors break down the excess waste and turn it into methane. The methane can then be burned in generators that produce electricity for the lighting. So far, this type of system is still in the development stage, but it looks promising.
If all this is successful, facilities like the one in Chicago can be used as models for other areas across the country. They will be able to produce organic produce and fish, while, at the same time, reducing the carbon generated by traditional farming practices, and do all of it, while generating much of the electricity they need. That’s a win-win-win, like a green hat trick.