A few weeks ago I read an interesting article reporting on aquaponics, something that has major implications for tomato lovers. Hydroponic tomatoes have been around a while, and I certainly want to learn more about the art of growing this way (more to come in future blog posts). Last week though, I gathered some insight into the new budding aquaponics industry in Chicago and our neighbor to the North – Milwaukee. If you don’t know what aquaponics is, let me explain. With aquaponics, fish are raised together with plants. The plants are grown vertically in empty warehouses and fertilized by the fish waste.
I know what you’re thinking: “fish waste – sounds sort of gross” but really, when you think of all the junk that can be in some store-bought tomato fertilizers you use, it’s a beautiful thing. In fact, one of my favorite fertilizers has a lot of fish matter in it. Aquaponics is really going to become a great way to grow tomatoes. If you’ve been to any garden store, or flown on an airplane (Sky Mall people), you know that tomatoes grow upside down in your kitchen like a gem. A giant warehouse full of vertically grown organic tomatoes makes any home tomato gardeners eyes light up like supernovas.
Aquaponic and hydroponic warehouses are popping up all over the world, especially in my neck of the woods. When I say “warehouses,” I mean commercial growing businesses. There is one near downtown Chicago and two in Wisconsin. This isn’t the same as growing hydroponic tomatoes at your house though. The thing to remember is that these are still businesses, and as much as avid gardeners want them to succeed, they still need to show profits. It’s possible and plausible that they will succeed, but the farmers are going to have to think outside the box.
Something must be catching on though, because last week, without solicitation, my friend started talking about aquaponics at a happy hour. He mentioned that these businesses were struggling, which really bothered me… I want this to work! We happened to be at a religious happy hour event for our synagogue and I don’t know, I guess a divine spark of business acumen struck me. My friend was interested in aquaponics and hydroponics for no other reasons than these mediums are new, interesting and outside the box. But sadly, the three aquaponic farms in our area are not turning profits at this time (per the article I read). If mass hydroponic and aquaponic gardening is going to survive, they are going to have to think about more than just farming.
My idea is this: Tours.
The former meat-packing plant near downtown Chicago turned aquaponics farm was so illuminating to my friend that he really just wanted to go and see it. I read about the farm from a news source (I believe the Associated Press), and it piqued my interest as a tomato grower, but it’s piquing other people’s interest for its ingenuity. Think World’s Fair, 1983. The invention of the Ferris Wheel. Heck, think of any World’s Fair. They were about innovation and intrigue.
Innovative farmers need to find innovative ways to monetize. Hydroponic and aquaponic tomatoes don’t have the fortification that traditional commercially grown tomatoes have and I imagine the other fruits and vegetables grown in these warehouses suffer from the same plight. Farmers will have to be quick to get their produce to market, and in cities like Chicago the sale of locally grown organic vegetables only happens at Whole Foods, seasonal farmer’s markets and a few specialty grocers. In other words, the selling season is shorter. According to the University of Arizona’s agriculture department, hydroponic tomatoes just won’t last as long as regularly grown tomatoes. I’m not a botanist, but I’m guessing this holds true for aquaponically grown tomatoes as well.
People are interested in the industry though, and people want to see these warehouse reclamation projects first hand. Why not give them a tour, like a brewery tour, with some sample fruits and veggies at the end?
The conversation at the happy hour didn’t end there though. As I offered my spark of monetization, my friend offered him. Maybe these growers will have to be more than fresh produce producers and tour guides. With ample warehouse space, these farmers may have room for canning tomatoes or other produce to preserve them longer and sell them year round. Year-round organic fruit from an old meat packing plant? It’s every hipster’s dream! What I’m thinking is that these warehouses are big and typically in areas where real estate isn’t as valuable. The farmers are going to have to use every bit of space they have in a positive direction in order to make money. Now I’m just a tomato lover, so maybe my business ideas are way off. But I hope these farmers find a way to make it work, turn profits and provide fresh produce year round.