Pratt said the system is carefully balanced.
“If we see something (not right) in the plants, it tells us the fish aren’t getting something they need,” he said. “If there are too many fish in the tanks, we’ll see the effluent build up on the roots of the plants.”
In another room are trays where seedlings are nurtured, as well as displays where concepts like vertical farming are demonstrated for students who regularly participate in programs there.
“We’re all about see, touch, taste, hear and smell,” he said. “That activates the senses for learning.”
But Pratt’s background is in urban planning, not botany or aquaponics. The center, for him, isn’t just a way to teach kids how to grow fish and plants; it’s a way to teach them how to grow sustainable businesses.
He’s not alone. Other urban farming projects are working in Chicago. John Edel is owner of The Plant, a 100,000 square-foot former meatpacking building in the Back of the Yards neighborhood that is home to five vertical farms, plus two bakeries, two breweries and a cheese maker.
Three of the farms in Edel’s facility are run by Plant Chicago, a non-profit dedicated to research and educational programming on sustainable, closed-loop food production. Edel, who has worked with Pratt, said Pratt is on the right track and that the urban farming movement will grow.
“I think there will be many vertical farms, in addition to more outdoor farms, operating in urban settings,” he said.
Edel said his building includes farms that are profitable as businesses and says this is the “proof of concept” that shows the potential for the idea to be successful in urban neighborhoods.
Pratt said that while a significant part of his mission is educational rather than economical, he has agreements with several neighborhood restaurants and caterers who use his fish and produce.
“I’m obsessed with the concept of blight,” he said. “The old idea was, wipe it out and start anew. Then people wondered, ‘Where’s the solution?’ I say: ‘Here it is.’”