Most land in cities is now paved over so efforts to grow food in urban environments continually turns up innovative approaches. With much of our food produced in highly intensive systems, anything with an element of integration has to be of interest. Writer Anna Rohleder profiles the first indoor aquaponics operation in the United States, which she feels is a sustainable system. Does this concept of ‘sustainable’ tally with yours? Do such systems have a place in the future of our food? Could more be done to develop it as a model for others to copy? We’ll be very interested to read any comments you may leave – Sustainable Food Trust

It all started with the oven room.

The former Rainbo  Bread Factory building in Lexington, Kentucky, was being turned into a new, multi-use complex called the Breadbox. But even with West Sixth Brewing, a large craft brewery, as the anchor tenant, most of the old bakery space was still available – including the oven room. The raw concrete shell would not have appealed to most people. But it gave Rebecca Self, a former science teacher and food educator with a background in architecture, an idea.

At 325 square metres, the oven room was both large and well insulated, so that it would stay at a constant temperature. This made it ideal for aquaponics, a hybrid form of food production that marries aquaculture (raising fish in tanks) with hydroponics (growing plants without soil).

In 2011, Self’s idea became FoodChain, Kentucky’s first indoor hydroponics system operating at a commercial scale – albeit, a small one. There are about 500 tilapia divided into six tanks, three raised beds of lettuces and herbs, and only two other full-time staff members besides Self.

All over the walls of the oven room there are hand-lettered posters explaining each step of the process, and a chalkboard at the entrance illustrating key data points with whimsical coloured doodles. That, along with the DIY infrastructure, makes FoodChain seem more like a huge science fair project than a business.

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Self stresses that FoodChain was founded foremost as an educational organisation and secondarily as a farming operation. “Almost every piece of this has been about generating best practice rather than creating scalable models,” she says. In the words of her mission statement, the goal is to “reconnect people with their food via education and demonstration of sustainable indoor food production”.

Nearly 6,000 people have toured FoodChain’s facilities since it opened in 2012. Visitors have ranged from primary school students to working farmers. They have come from all over Kentucky, other parts of the United States and as far afield as Curaçao. These tours not only demonstrate the possibilities of urban farming, but have sparked some very real inspiration. “We know of three farms specifically that started their operations after their visits to FoodChain – and hopefully even more hobbyists have been inspired,” says Self. “We’ve also helped get eight indoor aquaponics systems started in area classrooms.”

Closing the loop on renewability

FoodChain illustrates that food can be grown indoors almost anywhere. Because the oven room started out as a windowless dark space, lighting was one of the first issues that came up. Without access to the sun, it was important to find grow lights that worked for the plants and were also energy efficient. The answer came in the form of replaceable induction fixtures mounted on a rack system that moves the lights continually back and forth over the plant beds. Mobile lighting cuts 30% off FoodChain’s electricity cost and saves the plants’ energy as well, as they don’t need to bend toward a source of stationary light.

Leafy greens such as lettuces and herbs were chosen as crops for their fast-growing cycle and their ready marketability. Tilapia was selected as the fish for the same reasons, along with the fact that it is robust enough to tolerate a range of water quality conditions.

FoodChain’s hydroponics system creates a closed loop process between the fish and the plants. Fish droppings are separated out into solids, which are turned into fertiliser by bacteria in a separate tank, while the leftover water is filtered through the plant beds. The clean water that results is returned to the fish tanks using the one pump in the whole operation – gravity pulls water through the rest of the system. Because the same water is continually cycled through, less than 10% of the water used by a conventional agricultural operation is needed.

9720873790_6197d1f099FoodChain extends the notion of virtuous circles into its ecosystem as a business. Ouita Michel, one of FoodChain’s board members, is a Lexington restaurateur who opened a takeaway eatery called Smithtown Seafood in the BreadBox to demonstrate the benefit of being co-located with an urban farming operation. “Many business people, especially in the restaurant sector, can be intimidated by the complexity and cost of local food and sustainable practices,” says Michel. “We have been pleasantly surprised by the ease of implementation, the smooth relationship we have developed with FoodChain and the fact that our prime costs of food and labour do not exceed industry standards of 60%.” Smithtown Seafood serves FoodChain’s tilapia in three whole-fish preparations: an Asian version, Mexican style and the local ‘Southern’ way, rolled in corn meal and fried.

The need to supply the restaurant resulted in two other major efficiencies. First, FoodChain started a fish hatchery, taking its tilapia from baby fry to harvest size in just over six months. With more mouths to feed, however, fish food became a bigger overhead cost. So FoodChain teamed up with researchers from Kentucky State University to create a formula for fish food using spent grain from the brewery next door. “This is a building of ‘yes’,” comments Self, noting that most of the Breadbox tenants have some form of collaboration or partnership with each other.

Changing the outer landscape

Outside the building, collaboration hasn’t always come as easily. Located in Lexington’s Northside neighbourhood, the Breadbox sits at the intersection of several very different residential districts. To one side lies a block of government-subsidised flats. To the other runs a street of restored historic homes. In between lies a stretch of low-slung wooden houses occupied by working families. Despite being neighbours, the residents of each district rarely mix. What they all have in common, however, is the lack of a nearby grocery store, qualifying the Northside as a food desert.

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That is something FoodChain hopes to change with the next phase of its evolution. The organisation plans to take over the remaining vacant sections of the old bakery and open a produce processing facility and retail grocer that will supply the community with affordable fresh food. If the right funding comes through, FoodChain aims to open the kitchen in spring 2016 and the store later in the year. In keeping with its educational mission, FoodChain will also offer classes in kitchen skills and other aspects of food literacy.

After that, Self plans to expand FoodChain’s farming operation outside of the oven room to raised beds on the roof of the BreadBox and mushroom growing in the basement. The overarching idea is to continually expand their sustainable growing practices by incorporating more waste streams and vacant urban spaces. She says, “One of the biggest benefits of indoor food production is that you open up new agricultural opportunities where no one would have thought it was possible.”

Photographs: Geoff Maddock Photography

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