What Exactly Is Going On At 312Aquaponics? Something Fishy

April 18, 2012 at 12:52 pm

The word aquaponics is one of the new “it” words of urban agriculture but what exactly does it mean and what are the guys at 312Aquaponics, who are situated at the new enviro-incubator, The Plant, actually doing? Is it hydroponics or aquaponics, greens or fish or both?

Here is an 8 minute video showcasing the founders of 312aquaponics, in the spirit that a video, takes the place of thousands of words, Mario Spatafora, Arash Amini, Brian Watkins, Andrew Fernitz, and Myles Harston, Aquaponics System Designer describe their mission and the philosophy and mission behind their business.

When I first heard the word aquaponics, I thought, is this a new type of water aerobics class? Is it a new type of cooking for molecular gastronomers? Is it a new beverage I can mix with gin? Fortunately, it is none of these. The word “aquaponics” is a portmanteau (combination of 2 words) aquaculture and hydroponics but there we go with that “ponic” thing. According to Wikipedia, “Hydroponics is a subset of hydroculture and is a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil.” Okay, so if that is what hydroponics is, growing plants in a very nutrient rich liquid, mostly water, what is aquaponics? Well, let’s go to Wikipedia again: Aquaponics is a sustainable food production system that combines a traditional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as snails, fish, crayfish or prawns in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. In the aquaculture, effluents accumulate in the water, increasing toxicity for the fish. This water is led to a hydroponic system where the by-products from the aquaculture are filtered out by the plants as vital nutrients, after which the cleansed water is re-circulated back to the animals. So, okay, I kind of understand this, the fish make the water dirty but the waste is good for plants, that water is sent to the plants who use it for food and then the clean water is circulated back to the fish.

But I hear rumblings that the 312aquaponics guys are thinking of using different fish and are even selling hydroponic only systems to restaurants so that they can grow their own greens indoors and easily. So what the heck is going on here? Something smells fishy (pun intended). To get down to the bottom of this, I sent some questions through email to Brian Watkins, Chief of Operations. Brian was kind enough to respond to my questions below.

1) I now understand what aquaponics means,  as well as hydroponics, both involve growing plants in nutrient dense water indoors and aquaponics involve the fish side. Is 312 a fish producer or are you a greens producer, just what kind of business are you? And you have mentioned previously that the bacteria breaking down the fish waste are the key elements of the operation, so where does the bacteria come from?

Although we have multiple revenue streams, lets focus in on the farming revenue stream. 312 is primarily a greens producer, over the course of a year our sales in greens is 10x + that of the fish. So just what kind of business are we? Well, at heart we are a agricultural technology company, we design systems that are scalable, profitable, and user-friendly. But we are newcomers to the oldest, most established markets, in the country and world for that matter. And while we are currently doing contract work with universities and restaurants, we think the best way to prove our systems technology is to bring our own produce to market. Take it to a wholesale level, and continually improve our systems making them easier to implement.

The nitrifying bacteria pre-exist with us in our air and in our water all the time. By having an aquaponic system we provide the ideal conditions for beneficial bacteria growth by having a dark nutrient rich area with high amounts of oxygen. These conditions then lead to the natural colonization of nitrosomonas and nitrobacter in large quantities. And over the course of a couple months, they build up to levels to that convert all the fish waste.

2) I hear aquaponics being used at some of these non-profit organizations that have built urban farms. What are the challenges of being “for profit” when you are using a new, sustainable technology like aquaponics? Have you been able to sell any systems yet to restaurants? Are they in use?

Over the course of our operation, the challenges we have faced have shifted radically. It began with financing, getting our seed investment in a grey legal area. Then it became an issue getting our system parameters right, and making sure our crops were high quality. Then it became an issue of finding the right distributors, and which markets to focus in on. Now we are working with the City of Chicago towards a better landscape for urban agriculture. Right now we are working on a previously installed system in  a restaurant with plans to work with/install systems a few more in the summer months to come. Are they in use? We are finishing up the testing, and they will be in full production within 2 weeks.

3) Will I be able to buy greens from you guys at some point or fish or from someone who is using your technology? Where is the product going?

Of course! Right now we are holding off on sales of produce, but after we work out the kinks with the city, we are looking to distribute on a wholesale level and make proprietary green mixes for restaurants and retail food distributors.

4)Is there anything you would like to say to the Local Beet community?

Just that I’m confident Chicago will become a hub for urban agricultural. The framework, buildings, and talent exists, it should be a great summer = )