West Humboldt Park Farm Raises Fresh Fish, Greens in Once-Empty Lot

Video: Nick Blumberg for “Chicago Tonight”

A once-vacant lot in West Humboldt Park has been transformed into a year-round farm that uses an innovative growing method to raise fresh fish and greens.

Inside the 12,000-square-foot greenhouse that is Metropolitan Farms are roughly 3,000 fish swimming in six 800-gallon tanks. There are also rows and rows of leafy greens and herbs, like basil, kale, Swiss chard and a proprietary salad mix.

The method in place is called aquaponics. It combines aquaculture – the breeding and harvesting of fish – and hydroponics – the growing of plants in water. It's also free of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Benjamin Kant, the 30-year-old CEO and founder of the farm calls it a “superior growing method because of how natural it is.” The farm is projected to grow 92,000 heads of lettuce and 5,600 pounds of fish in its first year.

In aquaponics, the waste produced by fish is converted into plant nutrients like nitrogen by bacteria in the water. When the plants extract these nutrients from the water they purify it; the clean water is then sent back into the fish tanks.

“The bacteria are essentially the engine of the system,” Kant said. “They take the fuel – the fish waste – and turn it into nutrients.”

Kant developed the idea while earning his master’s of business administration at University of Illinois at Chicago. 

“We have a long winter and we don’t have a lot of fresh food that’s produced during that time,” Kant said. “If we can grow the fresh food for Chicago while the local farmers can’t do it, then we’re really satisfying a need in the city.”

  • Metropolitan Farms founder and CEO Benjamin Kant, left, and co-founder and COO Shockey Funke inside the Metropolitan Farms greenhouse. (Evan Garcia)

    Metropolitan Farms founder and CEO Benjamin Kant, left, and co-founder and COO Shockey Funke inside the Metropolitan Farms greenhouse. (Evan Garcia)

  • The greenhouse is located at 4250 W. Chicago Ave. in West Humboldt Park. (Evan Garcia)

    The greenhouse is located at 4250 W. Chicago Ave. in West Humboldt Park. (Evan Garcia)

  • Baby tilapia are ordered from a supplier in Louisiana. Because the fish are moved to different tanks as they grow, Kant said he's able to examine each individual fish and therefore notice any irregularities quickly. (Evan Garcia)

    Baby tilapia are ordered from a supplier in Louisiana. Because the fish are moved to different tanks as they grow, Kant said he's able to examine each individual fish and therefore notice any irregularities quickly. (Evan Garcia)

  • “Aquaponics is a model that focuses a little more on the plants than the fish,” Kant said. (Evan Garcia)

    “Aquaponics is a model that focuses a little more on the plants than the fish,” Kant said. (Evan Garcia)

  • The water below this basil has circulated through the tilapia tanks and contains nutrients for the plants which were converted from fish waste by bacteria. The crops in turn purify the water, which is sent back into the fish tanks. (Evan Garcia)

    The water below this basil has circulated through the tilapia tanks and contains nutrients for the plants which were converted from fish waste by bacteria. The crops in turn purify the water, which is sent back into the fish tanks. (Evan Garcia)

  • Kant said they sell three different types of tilapia at Metropolitan Farms: pink tilapia, albino tilapia and gray tilapia. (Evan Garcia)

    Kant said they sell three different types of tilapia at Metropolitan Farms: pink tilapia, albino tilapia and gray tilapia. (Evan Garcia)

  • Shockey Funke feeds juvenile tilapia swimming in the greenhouse's smaller tanks. (Evan Garcia)

    Shockey Funke feeds juvenile tilapia swimming in the greenhouse's smaller tanks. (Evan Garcia)

  • All seeds are sown by hand. (Evan Garcia)

    All seeds are sown by hand. (Evan Garcia)

  • Forty-two high-intensity discharge lamps provide extra light during the winter and exceptionally cloudy days. (Evan Garcia)

    Forty-two high-intensity discharge lamps provide extra light during the winter and exceptionally cloudy days. (Evan Garcia)

  • Metropolitan Farms also sells fish dew: nutrient-rich water for home gardeners. (Evan Garcia)

    Metropolitan Farms also sells fish dew: nutrient-rich water for home gardeners. (Evan Garcia)

  • Water re-circulates through the fish tanks and crops via these PVC pipes Kant and Funke assembled themselves. (Evan Garcia)

    Water re-circulates through the fish tanks and crops via these PVC pipes Kant and Funke assembled themselves. (Evan Garcia)

  • Kant said his business focuses on a consistent and quality crop yield of leafy greens, but that they're open to diversifying crop type "down the line." (Evan Garcia)

    Kant said his business focuses on a consistent and quality crop yield of leafy greens, but that they're open to diversifying crop type "down the line." (Evan Garcia)

  • According to Kant, basil is one of their most popular crops. (Evan Garcia)

    According to Kant, basil is one of their most popular crops. (Evan Garcia)

  • Kant said Metropolitan Farms offers discounted tour rates for student groups. (Evan Garcia)

    Kant said Metropolitan Farms offers discounted tour rates for student groups. (Evan Garcia)

  • Kant examines his kale harvest. "I walk around this greenhouse all day and I pick leaves and eat them," Kant said. "I’m the first canary in the coal mine."

    Kant examines his kale harvest. "I walk around this greenhouse all day and I pick leaves and eat them," Kant said. "I’m the first canary in the coal mine."

Construction began in summer 2014 and was completed in about four months. In October 2015, Kant and co-founder Shockey Funke, who serves as chief operating officer, started selling greens and tank-raised tilapia directly from the farm and via wholesale retailers like Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets, food co-ops and farmers markets.

While they raise several different varieties of greens, they're sticking with tilapia for now.

“They have a nice meat,” Kant said. “It’s a good, fresh white fish. They’re very tolerant of being in social conditions. Some fish are solitary or migratory, but tilapia are schooling fish, so they like to be together with a lot of friends and they don’t mind being in a contained space.”

Only whole fish are for sale from Metropolitan Farms, but that shouldn’t deter buyers unfamiliar with cleaning fish. Funke said a woman recently biked to the greenhouse from Old Town to fill a backpack full of fresh fish – and she’d never cleaned a fish before in her life.

“I think the excitement of this place is kind of infectious,” Funke said. “To do a really good cleaning job, it takes practice, but YouTube is great. Type in ‘how to clean a fish’ and you’re good to go.”

Kant and Funke, both lifelong Chicago residents, said they’re hopeful they'll turn a profit this summer and say the region’s harsh seasonal conditions make it a perfect fit for a year-round aquaponics farm operation.

More information about pricing and where to find Metropolitan Farms’ products can be found here. Public and private group tours of the greenhouse take place every Tuesday and Saturday. For ticket prices and scheduling information, visit their events calendar.

Follow Evan Garcia on Twitter: @EvanRGarcia


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