Aquaponics farm in Duquesne. Rendering courtesy of In City Farms.

Pittsburgh isn’t exactly known for its seafood. Not having a sea nearby slows us down a bit in that regard.

This could change (well, no, we’re not getting a sea) if all goes according to plan for a new aquaponics farm in Duquesne.

“I’ve raised fish since I was a 12-year-old kid,” explains entrepreneur Glenn Ford, the Minnesota-based founder of In City Farms. What attracted Ford to aquaponics was the need for a different kind of food system that can reliably provide food in the year 2050 and beyond — no small challenge, given the potential impacts of climate change.

Ford plans to open his new indoor farm on vacant industrial land within Duquesne’s riverfront, and he expects to employ 130 people in the first phase. The second phase will employ 100 more, and a third phase is being planned.

In City’s building will be 180,000 square feet, and cost $30 million for the first phase.

“It’s going through permitting now,” says Ford. “We estimate that we’ll have this thing started in the spring.”

Here’s how it works: Aquaponics begins with raising edible fish (the Duquesne farm will likely include trout and Arctic char) in indoor pools. The fish are then sold commercially, and the waste stream from the water then fertilizes vegetables that are also grown indoors.

“Essentially, it takes the nutrient stream from fish and runs it through a biological filter which has a bunch of positive bacteria in it, much like the soil has,” Ford says. In the process, he explains, the bacteria eat away all the ammonia and turn it into nitrates that plants can consume.

Aquaponics farm in Duquesne. Rendering courtesy of In City Farms.

“There is a balance between the amount of fish you can raise and the plants that can be supported,” he says. “It’s a mathematical and scientific loop.”

Growing plants indoors under optimal conditions gives the region a source of produce all year long, beyond the typical outdoor growing season. Traditionally, restaurants that want to source ingredients locally have few options in the winter.

“We are predominantly focused on the wholesale trade,” Ford says. “But we’ll also sell to restaurants directly, if they come to us with requests for things they can’t find in the market.”

Ideally, he says, the plants will be consumed within 20 or 30 miles from where they’re grown, lowering the carbon footprint.

The former Duquesne Steel Works site was chosen because it fits a profile of a community that industry has largely left behind. In City Farms has also purchased land in five other cities, says Ford.

“I come from inner cities and so do several of the people on my management team,” says Ford. “We’re looking at ways to give back. We’ll hire as many people as we can to fill those jobs from the community. There’s a pretty high percentage that can come from directly from Duquesne.”

The jobs will start at about $35,000 for entry-level and will include management positions.

Aquaponics farm in Duquesne. Rendering courtesy of In City Farms.

This is just one part of an effort called Food21, which imagines creating a thriving economy based around food in the region. It could involve creating jobs through food production and logistics.

The jobs aren’t the byproduct of this venture — they’re the whole point: “This is a catalyst to use food to employ people and give them jobs,” says Ford.

“Obviously we have to run a successful business to keep employing people and keep the business growing,” he says. “In order to do that, products have to be produced that have market value at market rates. But it’s really an opportunity to look at the resources that are present inside a community, and to figure out how to turn those resources into opportunities.”

This isn’t the only high-tech non-traditional farm startup in the Mon Valley. Braddock has a robotic vertical farm in the works from tech firm Fifth Season.

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife,...