Order Up: Washington Caterer's Warehouse Doubles as Vertical Farm

By Beth Kormanik August 9, 2012, 11:24 AM EDT

Aquaponic farming is the latest green initiative from Main Event Caterers.

Photo: Courtesy of Main Event Caterers

The typical image of a farm is rows of vegetables spread over acres of land. For its farm, Main Event Caterers went vertical. In what it believes is a first for a Washington-area caterer, the company created an aquaponic farming system, a setup that includes 5,000 gallons of fish tanks and about 600 square feet of vertical, stacked planting gardens.

In an aquaponic system, water is circulated from nutrient-rich fish tanks to planting beds through a system of pumps and filters. Plants grow without any soil, using pea gravel or other material instead. The water bathes the plant roots and is drained from the containers, eventually returning back to the fish tanks. Main Event uses rainwater reclaimed from its roof to start the process. So far, the company is farming tilapia, micro greens, cucumbers, strawberries, and squash—all organic—with plans for fruiting plants such as tomatoes and peppers.

The idea started two years ago when C.E.O. Joël Thévoz began exploring alternative urban-farming methods. Initially he considered building a rooftop garden but eventually decided on an aquaponic system set up inside a warehouse, which had more space and gave him the ability to control the temperature. (Besides, the roof already had tenants in the form of 40,000 honeybees.) The design, which was finished late last year, consists of four shelving units with three planting beds set above each fish tank. An energy-efficient lighting system moves across the space as the sun would outdoors.

“The next phase for me will be to take back the amount of table scraps that come back from events, as well as non-compostables from our kitchen, and convert those into fish food,” said Thévoz. “That would complete the cycle.”

Main Event uses the produce to supply items for tastings and demonstrations, according to general manager Cheryl Bennett. (The tilapia in its fish tanks is used only for fertilization.)

“The plan is not to grow our own vegetables for all of our events. We don't have the space for it,” she said. “But it can show businesses that it can be done and inspire others to do similar things.”

The urban farm is just the latest green initiative from Main Event. The company composts its waste, filters its own water for still and sparkling waters, and shreds its cardboard for packaging materials that it sends to events. It also invites clients to calculate the carbon footprint of their events. After starting the aquaponic project, county officials appointed Thévoz to the Arlington Urban Farming Task Force.

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