Scrutiny reveals troubled Sweet Water
July 1, 2012
MILWAUKEE PRESS CLUB
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By Michael Timm
Sweet Water Organics, the Bay View aquaponics farm, is a media darling. But scrutiny of the local startup business, which angles to be a leader in a globally emerging urban agriculture industry, reveals a darker tale.
Last year, six employees departed the company, which wasn’t paying them and which they said wasn’t listening to them about how to make their systems more sustainable. Fish were dying. Greenhouses sat empty. The money, it seemed, had dried up. Then, with the help of Alderman Tony Zielinski, the city tossed Sweet Water and its skeleton crew a quarter-million-dollar life preserver. This year, back from the brink, the company is using that money to reinvent their systems based on the work of a Scottish aquaponics expert. These new outdoor systems, set to debut this month, once again dangle the lure of profitability.
Sweet Water’s critics believe passionately in aquaponics. They believe that good science results in efficient systems. But they remain unconvinced that the soul of their former company’s management has changed for the better. Has the enterprise finally turned a corner toward its goal of commercial viability, or do the missteps of the past portend ill for Sweet Water’s future?
In May 2011, the city of Milwaukee approved a $250,000 forgivable loan to fund a capital expansion of Sweet Water Organics, the Bay View aquaponics farm at 2151 S. Robinson Ave.
Since the money started flowing last August, Sweet Water has been criticized by former employees who left prior to the loan approval.
Some were rankled that the business appeared to receive a public bailout just months after it failed to pay them thousands they were owed in unpaid wages.
But they also claimed that Sweet Water projected a false façade of environmental and economic sustainability in order to attract investment.
Six employees left in early 2011 after unpaid wages and frustration with the company’s leadership. The Compass spoke with four of them in 2012.
Their accounts depict a toxic work environment at Sweet Water in the second half of 2010 through early 2011 characterized by unpaid work, extremely low morale, and a deep disconnect between management and labor. They described a Sweet Water struggling to attract and retain private investors before their commercial-scale aquaponics systems were profitable. They also said their suggestions to improve Sweet Water’s systems were ignored or incompletely funded.
“They hide behind the idea of sustainability in order to make a profit,” said Ryan Bourbon, former Sweet Water biologist, whose background is with the U.S. Coast Guard. “Sustainability is not the hook in a business proposal—it is a term used to describe the practices of a company that is fighting for change and to supply a healthy future for a community. In no way has the leadership shown any interest in creating a better living for anyone other than themselves. I also do not believe that Josh has any interest in seeing Sweet Water succeed other than the fact that he has so much money invested into the company.”
“Sweet Water’s story is not without its deviations from perfection, inescapable imbecilities, and constant provocations back and forth among our expanding web of local and global partners. But it is also a quintessentially Milwaukee creation, combining our cultural capital in farming and crafting, art and science, commerce and commonwealth ambitions.”
Sweet Water Foundation president
Josh Fraundorf is Sweet Water Organics’ co-founder, one of its eight owner-investors, and its current president.
The Compass sat down with Fraundorf and his public relations volunteer Mike Mervis in April to discuss the criticisms.
Fraundorf lamented the “politics of resentment.”
“There was only probably about a couple-week period for a majority where we all sacrificed,” Fraundorf said, acknowledging that “as a startup, we had our challenges. Our funding was a little tight.”
Department of Workforce Development correspondence provided by ex-employee Jesse Hull, however, who took his case to the state to seek his then-unpaid compensation, shows that both parties acknowledged at least nine weeks of unpaid wages.
Hull and Sweet Water settled Hull’s claim earlier in 2012, with Sweet Water cutting Hull a check for $7,500.
Fraundorf acknowledged that he paid other ex-employees back wages in late 2011. This claim is consistent with the company’s 2011 fourth-quarter wage report, which included $2,830 for Tom Knoll, $600 for Kata Young, and $990 for Molly Stanek, all ex-employees who were not employed at Sweet Water in the fourth quarter of 2011.
As of April 2012, Fraundorf said Sweet Water no longer owes any employee back pay. He rejected the speculation that any public money went to pay off the money owed to employees. A Compass investigation of Sweet Water’s invoices filed with the city for their loan confirms Fraundorf’s assertion.
A graphic illustration of what was going wrong at Sweet Water involved mass fish die-offs.
But the ex-employee criticisms were about more than money—they were about process.
A graphic illustration of what was going wrong at Sweet Water involved mass fish die-offs.
Theoretically, the aquaponics system is a closed loop with an optimal balance among fish, plants, and bacteria. Ideally, the nutrient-rich water itself does not leave the system except for evaporation and biological uptake. Dissolved fish waste fertilizes plants; and plants and bacteria clean the water for fish. That’s what makes the recirculating system closed. It’s like a mini ecosystem.
Optimal ratios of plants and fish depend on multiple factors—pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen, fish feed, fish type, plant type, water volume, flow rates—but can be calculated for a given system.
Load an aquaponics system with too many fish, too few plants, or too few bacteria, however, and nutrients become excessive. Instead of becoming a resource, waste builds up. The water chemistry becomes toxic. Bad things happen.
“We were losing hundreds of fish per day,” recalled Hull, former director of horticulture, research, and development, who lamented the “inhumaneness” of the overcrowded system of fish. Hull said 1,700 “just died” during the winter before the loan application. He described fish swimming in their own waste, nipping at each other, and dying of asphyxiation.
A veterinarian was called in over the objection of Fraundorf, according to Hull. “Josh stated that he didn’t want the vet called in, saying he’d rather keep ‘getting rid of the fish,’” Hull said. “At that time there was no money and no way to implement the humane and legal disposal of that many fish.”
“One of the key issues to make any aquaponics business sustainable is to have a team of skilled and experienced people running the operation—especially in the technical and scientific side.”
—Fred Binkowski, UWM Great Lakes WATER Institute scientist
Hull provided veterinarian’s correspondence dated March 18, 2011 and addressed to Fred Binkowski, scientist at the UW-Milwaukee Great Lakes WATER Institute who consulted with Sweet Water, and Jim Godsil, Sweet Water co-founder.
“Approximately 15,000 tilapia, housed in a 9,000 gallon aquaponic recirculating system tank, had suffered a loss of greater than 1,500 fish in a two week period…” wrote veterinarian David M. Vandever of Innovative Veterinary Services of Franklin, Wis. “The findings suggest a plurality of stresses resulting in the poor vitality of this population.”
The factors included poor water quality, using fish feed with too much protein, and high population density, the vet wrote. Some fish were even believed to be spawning in the tanks.
In necropsies of five fish, the vet noted missing fins, inflamed gills, friable livers, and distended gall bladders.
Fraundorf admitted that fish density was a problem.
“We learned a couple years ago that the reality is that you don’t need 15,000 fish in a 10,000-gallon system,” Fraundorf said in April 2012.
To cope with excessive densities, he said Sweet Water culled thousands of fish in several “strategic mortalities.” Carcasses were composted on Sweet Water’s property according to a protocol developed by a former employee, who had a background in soil science, Fraundorf said.
But Bourbon described the initial dumping of fish as a knee-jerk reaction because there was no established procedure at the time.
“An example [of lack of procedure] would be when Josh purchased 8,000 perch but did not have anywhere to put them,” Bourbon said. “It was decided that we would bury approximately 2,000 tilapia to make room for the perch. The person in charge of composting was not contacted and the first response was to just dig a hole out of the way and bury them.”
Fraundorf and Mervis spin this type of episode as the growing pains of an experimental startup company forging ahead with no blueprint. Critical ex-employees spin it as an example of irresponsible management.
Either way, mass graves of dead fish are certainly not as appealing an image as the company’s bright promotional graphics of fish, greens, and the blue water drops connecting them.
Other attempts to manage water chemistry simply involved changing out the water, which treated the symptom but not the cause.
In an anonymous letter to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources dated October 2011 and obtained by the Compass in January 2012, an ex-volunteer described concern over the system conditions.
“Bio-solids [fish feces and undigested food] would build up to the point of being a few inches thick in the plant grow beds, and eventually had to be sucked out by a vacuum,” the complaint alleged. “Frequent water exchanges were the only way to keep the fish from dying, and more than once I witnessed large quantities of dirty water being pumped from the fish tanks through black hoses into what was said to be a storm sewer drain located next to the food processing room (the waste material vacuumed out of the grow beds was also put down this drain).”
The Compass investigated this claim and found that the drain in question is part of the city’s combined sewer system. As a result, Sweet Water does not require a state discharge permit and its waste is treated by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, which does not consider the fish waste effluent any more problematic than human waste.
But dumping all that water was a sign that something wasn’t working. The systems weren’t in balance. They weren’t healthy.
Hull said the indoor systems were built before he and the others were hired, but they did the best they could with these “severely imbalanced systems.”
“During our time at SWO, Ryan, Molly, and I consistently pointed out the need for a balanced system involving less fish, more plants, and adequate filtration,” Hull said. “…Josh was pushing for more fish without accounting for how to filter or dispose of the enormous waste stream that would inevitably result, hence the storm sewer dumping.”
In April 2012 Fraundorf said they’ve since brought their densities down. Instead of three fish for every two gallons, for example, they’re now closer to one fish for every eight gallons.
Fraundorf said they’re measuring fish and feed. They’re buffering the tanks to control pH. As a result of the measures, Fraundorf said Sweet Water is now discharging just 1,000 to 1,250 gallons of water per week. “The systems here are healthier than they’ve ever been,” Fraundorf said.
But “healthier than they’ve ever been” doesn’t mean they’re economically or environmentally sustainable.
In fact, both Fraundorf and Mervis admit that they believe Sweet Water’s indoor systems—the wood structures of plant beds above tanks sawed into the concrete foundation of the former Harnischfeger crane factory—are not commercially scalable.
These systems—which Fraundorf and Mervis now call Phases 1, 2, 3, and 4—were attempts to scale up Will Allen’s much smaller Growing Power aquaponics model, systems Mervis said depended on outside funding and were designed to provide the social benefit of local food.
Fraundorf said Allen’s systems were what inspired him and Sweet Water co-founder Jim Godsil, roofers by trade, to create Sweet Water in the first place.
Allen is revered by many as an urban agriculture saint. Sources on all sides were reluctant to criticize the systems at Growing Power, but evaluating whether the model works at a commercial scale is central to Sweet Water’s story.
“Although I have a great deal of respect for what Will Allen has done for the urban farming movement, the aquaponics systems that Growing Power employs are based on a decades-old design that could not have competed with commercial levels of production even then,” Hull said. “With utmost honesty, Will has stated at his own workshops that a person couldn’t make a profitable business using his aquaponic designs and methods.”
It’s a lesson Fraundorf said he’s learned as well.
“We did multiple different filters and our staff had different beliefs and we tried and tried and, as management, there came a point, hey, this has gone as far as it’s going to go. We can’t get any better,” Fraundorf said.
Energy, infrastructure, and heating costs plus the aforementioned fish density and nutrient cycling issues make big, indoor centralized systems with insufficient area for plants less appealing, Fraundorf has discovered. “This, inside [indoor large Allen-style system in an old building], has its challenges and would not really be what I would recommend,” Fraundorf said.
Since Sweet Water opened its doors in 2009, however, thousands of people from across the world have gawked on tours at the ambitious systems, scaled up from the Growing Power model. Given the Sweet Water pitch, some perhaps are emulating them, believing that Sweet Water’s indoor systems represent a commercially viable method of food production.
“But it’s also fair to say that of the thousands of people who have come through, they’ve gotten a spark,” Mervis added, now calling the indoor systems Sweet Water’s “research facility.”
“We’ve tweaked these 10 different ways,” Fraundorf said. “There’s just a much better approach that we’ve learned.”
Next, Phase 5
They’re calling that new approach Phase 5.
Last summer Sweet Water had been in the midst of expanding deep in-ground tank systems outside in conjunction with its greenhouses, modeled after its indoor Allen-inspired systems.
Last October for a week, Sweet Water brought in a rock star of the aquaponics world, Scotland’s Charlie Price, who operates his own consultancy, Aquaponics UK.
Price recommended a totally new direction—in essence, shallower gravity-fed channels for more plants and smaller above-ground tanks with fewer fish.
Mervis called Price’s model a “quantum leap” in technology. Fraundorf called Price’s system “the best one on the planet.”
In April Fraundorf showed off the Phase 5 “fish house,” which looks like a garage on the exterior. Shallow, meticulously graded above-ground tanks in the surrounding greenhouses connect to the fish house.
Water will flow slowly by gravity through these shallow tanks. Plants will grow on floating polystyrene rafts, their roots in the water below. The water will circulate through the 10 1,200-gallon above-ground fish tanks in the fish house. Phase 5 is designed to be served by just one filter and one pump. The water is kept at 72 degrees.
If it begins as scheduled this month, production from Price’s system is expected to be much more efficient than the indoor systems.
Right now, Fraundorf said Sweet Water produces 150 pounds of greens per week from the inside operations. With the Price-designed outdoor operations, Fraundorf predicts 1,000 pounds of lettuce per week, with 6,000 pounds of herbs and 18,000 pounds of fish annually.
“Every 45, 90 days having fish coming out the door, and every week having up to 1,000 pounds of lettuce go out the door—I mean, that’s a tremendous increase,” Fraundorf said.
Sweet Water is banking on this expansion to achieve sustainability and profitability, and the attempt was made possible through the $250,000 public loan.
In the course of reversing their earlier outdoor expansion plans to make way for Phase 5, Sweet Water backfilled the deeper in-ground tanks it had already constructed, but did not remove the tank frames.
Its critics noticed.
The October 2011 anonymous complaint sent to DNR also included allegations about illegal dumping.
When the Compass initially contacted DNR about the complaint in January 2012, it had not yet been pursued.
But in February 2012, DNR waste management specialist Nancy Gloe confronted Sweet Water about the alleged solid waste violations, which they admitted, though they claimed it was unsafe to remove the in-ground tank materials because the holes were collapsing and could cause injury.
In March 2012, DNR issued Sweet Water a slap-on-the-wrist notice of noncompliance.
“According to our records the SWO site is not a licensed solid waste disposal facility. Further, while we appreciate the difficulty of retrieving the wood from the excavations, SWO should have at least applied to our office for an exemption to the prohibition on burying on-site waste. Our records indicate that SWO made no such application,” Gloe wrote.
It wasn’t the only time Sweet Water placed itself in a precarious procedural position.
In an Oct. 13, 2011 email to Fraundorf attached to the loan disbursements file, Martha Brown, the city’s deputy commissioner of the Department of City Development, cautioned that proper permitting for Sweet Water’s greenhouses was necessary.
She sought to expedite Fraundorf’s submission of structural information to the city.
“We’re in a pretty tenuous position to be paying for construction of buildings that don’t have permits,” Brown wrote. “I’m sure you understand the importance of getting this resolved immediately.”
According to online city data, a permit was issued Nov. 11, 2011 for construction of a garage, the fish house, that was completed in December.
The Compass found no separate record of building permits for the surrounding greenhouses also erected last fall.
When asked about those permits in June 2012, Fraundorf emailed the project architect to inquire about the permits. His response to Fraundorf indicated that the city had reviewed and approved his design for the greenhouses but that he had not pulled actual permits since that is the role of the contractor, not the architect.
In early 2011 Sweet Water was in City Hall asking for money, just weeks after more than 1,500 overcrowded fish died and six employees departed.
An initial proposal, dated March 2011, actually included eventual plans to build a whole new facility on the vacant city-owned Army Reserve site along Bay Street.
This same proposal sought city funding to balance Sweet Water’s approximately $250,000 budget shortfall between its projected eight-month 2011 income of $232,000 and its projected eight-month expenses of $474,054, which included salaries and wages for 10 full-time equivalent employees.
The city’s Community & Economic Development Committee postponed consideration of this proposal until its April 26, 2011 meeting. The Department of City Development was notified of the proposal to tap the city’s Development Fund only days before the April 4 meeting. The proposal was sponsored by District 14 Alderman Tony Zielinski.
A dramatically modified proposal was submitted April 26. It focused solely on the outdoor capital expansion at the current Sweet Water site, but it was still a request for $250,000.
As the Compass reported last year, committee members unanimously supported the loan despite the reservations expressed by DCD’s Martha Brown that the investment was at the city’s risk.
Committee members amended the loan terms to include a 50-percent match from private investment, which Fraundorf told the committee “absolutely” was possible.
At the April 26, 2011 committee meeting, Fraundorf was asked how many people Sweet Water employed. He answered, truthfully, “four.”
There was no mention of the six employees who had recently left.
For its loan to be forgiven, Sweet Water must meet self-imposed annual job creation targets.
The company met its first jobs target of 10 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees for 2011, reporting that it employed 10 FTE at the end of 2011. This figure included co-founders Fraundorf and Godsil, who Mervis said were added to the payroll in the final days of 2011.
Fraundorf, Godsil, and six other employees are listed at 40 hours per week, and four other employees are listed at 20 hours a week. Two part-time employees equal one FTE.
Sweet Water’s next annual target is 21 total FTE jobs by 2013, with 45 total jobs by December 31, 2014.
Even with the public investment, a year later Sweet Water is still finding it difficult to secure private investment.
“In answer to the question, ‘Are you adequately financed?’ the answer is not at this point in time,” Mervis said.
Mervis said they hope to be adequately financed within the next year to 18 months, raising money both through additional equity offerings and through private and public equity sources.
“It’s still a challenge,” he acknowledged.
But ex-employee Hull, who with Stanek plans to launch his own aquaponics business, Imagine Aquaponics, claims Sweet Water took the wrong approach to secure investment.
He said they didn’t utilize the human talent they had to improve their operations.
“Instead…they went with the ‘bigger is better’ and [an] ‘if we build it they will come’ approach,” said Hull. “This ironically put off the majority of the potential investors who, although initially enamored by the grandeur of what is there, wanted to see a socially beneficial and environmentally friendly business that also has a clear view of the bottom line.”
One example: Hull said a potential investor contributed $100,000 to install filtration systems at Sweet Water near the end of 2010 prior to negotiating the investment of $1 million.
Hull said Fraundorf purchased some of the parts he requested for a filtration system he and Bourbon had recommended.
“I was in the process of installing filtration systems, thinking that the money was there for the rest of what was needed, when [one week later] we were informed that the money was gone,” Hull said. “The fish mortality rates went up drastically a couple months later.”
Fraundorf argued before committee in April 2011 that Sweet Water needed the public investment in order to build up production capacity to meet existing demand.
The 2011 proposal listed 11 regular customers interested in expanding their offerings of Sweet Water produce and fish: Empire Fish Company, Beans and Barley, Outpost Natural Foods, La Merenda, Comet Café/Honeypie, Coquette Café, Sven’s Café, Metcalfe’s Sentry, Sanford, Roast Coffee Company, and Wild Flour Bakery.
It listed an additional nine buyers that had expressed interest in purchasing consistent weekly orders once supply was available: MATC Culinary School, SURG Restaurant Group, Iron Horse Hotel, Café at the Plaza, Alterra Coffee Roasters, South Shore Farmers Market, East Side Green Market, Lowlands Group, and Rishi Tea.
In all, Sweet Water estimated total demand at 100,000 fish and 50,000 pounds of vegetables annually.
The three greenhouses nearest the fish house are scheduled to come online this summer, Fraundorf said, with the two vacant greenhouses along Robinson Avenue scheduled for plants in October 2012.
“I think the reality is in this business model that the fish is a bonus,” Fraundorf said. “You can grow it in a year’s time, 10 months, and it’s just an extra source, but its main purpose is to provide the nutrition to grow those healthy greens.”
This spring, Fraundorf said Sweet Water reached an agreement for its sprouts to be sold at the Balistreri-owned Sendik’s grocery stores.
The company is also pursuing USDA organic certification for its produce—a complicated matter because aquaponics does not use soil—which it expects this summer.
Tracking Public Money Spent
Of the $250,000 Sweet Water loan, the city has disbursed $191,478.67.
One way or another, $55,105.09 has gone to pay Bliffert Lumber, also a Sweet Water business partner, for materials and supplies for the greenhouses and fish house as well as miscellaneous hardware.
Centro Construction and Development LLC, operated by Steve Lindner, a friend of Fraundorf’s who also owns the property where Sweet Water is a tenant, received $13,628.97, much of it for labor costs.
Sweet Water spent $13,325.67 on Charlie Price’s expertise, $8,500 on a composting mixer, and $9,787.73 on a specialized filter for which the city does not yet have a record of a paid invoice.
One of its first purchases with the loan was a tax-exempt $24,325 tractor from Schrage Bros.
The state of Wisconsin lists as tax exempt “farm tractors and machines, including parts, lubricants, nonpowered equipment, and other tangible personal property used or consumed in the business of farming.”
Sweet Water attracted international attention last year when the city of Milwaukee won IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge grant, which brought an IBM team here to evaluate the city’s urban aquaponics leadership potential.
In its 2011 report, IBM observed the local fervor about aquaponics, but cautioned that Sweet Water needed to grow to scale to be sustainable.
“This enthusiasm and community engagement is a strength of the Milwaukee aquaponics industry and should be fostered and encouraged, but it must be balanced to ensure that the goal of sustainable production is achieved,” stated the IBM report, which called the results at Sweet Water “anecdotal at this point, with little objective data.”
“Sustainability is not the hook in a business proposal—it is a term used to describe the practices of a company that is fighting for change and to supply a healthy future for a community. In no way has the leadership shown any interest in creating a better living for anyone other than themselves.”
—Ryan Bourbon, former Sweet Water Organics employee
One of the most unguardedly enthusiastic evangelists for aquaponics is Sweet Water co-founder Jim Godsil, who told the city in 2011 that the enterprise possessed over half of his “life’s worth.”
Godsil is president of the Sweet Water Foundation, a nonprofit with an educational outreach mission to convert waste into resource that is coupled with the for-profit Sweet Water Organics.
After the Compass interview with Fraundorf and Mervis, Godsil sent the Compass over 30 unsolicited emails to accentuate the positives about Sweet Water.
“Sweet Water’s story is not without its deviations from perfection, inescapable imbecilities, and constant provocations back and forth among our expanding web of local and global partners,” Godsil wrote. “But it is also a quintessentially Milwaukee creation, combining our cultural capital in farming and crafting, art and science, commerce and commonwealth ambitions.”
Godsil even expressed a desire that Milwaukee win the Stockholm Water Prize or even a Nobel for efforts like Sweet Water’s.
Mervis called Godsil a “great Pied Piper of aquaponics and Sweet Water.”
Many have followed the music.
The Sweet Water Foundation won a $175,000 grant in March 2012 to develop an online platform for learning and assessment in aquaponics. The program will be called AQUAPONS and will feature “badges” for different levels of certification. The grant is administered by the University of California-Irvine and funded through the MacArthur Foundation. The Milwaukee technology firm SmartWave will help develop the online platform.
There’s also interest from the humanities.
The Sweet Water Foundation received funding from the USDA to conduct the Milwaukee Aquaponics Expertise Development Initiative, a pilot project to train educators and students.
UWM artist Nicolas Lampert and MSOE history professor Michael Carriere have proposed an experimental cultural and independent media center at Sweet Water, where artists and filmmakers would collaborate, featuring a rotating gallery, artist studio, and a speaker series.
For his part, Godsil served as a global ambassador for Sweet Water when he traveled to India last year with the U.S. State Department American Speakers program to promote aquaponics in the context of food security and environmental management.
Sweet Water and Growing Power are not the only aquaponics bastions in Wisconsin.
On a country road just north of Port Washington, next to a gravel lot parked with tractor trailers, half a greenhouse is grafted onto the southern exposure of an old agricultural storage building.
Inside, without the benefit of a consultant from Scotland, Pat Wilborn is on his way to something that looks rather like a mini version of Sweet Water Organics’ Phase 5.
He calls it Model 3—and he’s pouring a lot of money into it. But the real estate appraiser believes in local food. Passionately.
Wilborn is applying the lessons he’s learned about aquaponics from years tending a Will-Allen-inspired system—his Model 2—appended to the southern façade of his house, with piping connecting to a second-floor solarium that is green with plants even in February.
Every morning he’s changed out 50-gallon barrels of water to keep his system’s water chemistry within healthy parameters. “This is an inefficient system,” Wilborn admitted, but he’s learned from it.
Some of the lessons: keep plants and fish on one level, grow more plants, and don’t give up.
Wilborn’s enterprise is the next phase of PortFish, Ltd, a nonprofit run by him and his wife. Model 3 is not intended to be a huge commercial operation, but it is intended to provide a source of local food, and to teach Wilborn and others how to improve upon this system.
Across the state, a larger commercial operation, Nelson and Pade, Inc. has been in the business of aquaponics for 20 years. They moved their operations to tiny Montello, Wis. in 2006.
Co-owner Rebecca Nelson credited Sweet Water and Growing Power with generating publicity about aquaponics, but described Milwaukee as “its own little animal.”
“Depending on all these outside sources of money means it’s not a commercially viable enterprise,” Nelson said, declining to comment on Sweet Water’s systems themselves and stressing that her comment did not refer to aquaponics itself.
“There’s absolutely a system that’s optimal,” she said. “There’s science behind everything we do [at Nelson and Pade]…our system is zero-waste.”
Good science is something everyone agrees is needed to make aquaponics work.
Back in 2009, Sweet Water Organics launched with help from Fred Binkowski, scientist at the UW-Milwaukee Great Lakes WATER Institute. Binkowski is an aquaculture expert, particularly with yellow perch biology and water chemistry.
Over the past year and a half, Binkowski said his involvement has been related to answering basic questions for Sweet Water.
“One of the key issues to make any aquaponics business sustainable,” Binkowski said, “is to have a team of skilled and experienced people running the operation—especially in the technical and scientific side.”
Several ex-employees believed they were that team.
Bourbon described how he tested water quality daily, developed data collection standards, and set up the first rotation for lettuce harvest that allowed the company to track its plants’ growth. “From the time I began this report we were able to triple our weekly lettuce harvest rates and guarantee customers their order, something that could not be done in the past,” Bourbon said.
Hull said he and Stanek developed vertical growing systems for the Sweet Water greenhouses to increase production in 2010, but these were never widely implemented.
“In my opinion,” Bourbon said, “Josh had access to a dedicated and fully capable team of people who wanted to see SWO succeed. It is his inability to manage—the books and people—combined with his arrogance that will be the downfall of SWO.”
Mervis characterized the critical ex-employees as espousing competing visions about how the company should proceed.
“We don’t want to start a fight,” Mervis said. “So we are saying as clearly as we can: Startup. Differences of opinion. Differences of opportunity. Financial challenges up and down. And where we’re at today is where we’re at today, and how we got there may be a circuitous route but we are there and we have a clear vision.”
What would Sweet Water do differently if it were starting from scratch today?
Hire committed people, find a smaller facility, plan more space for retail, and earn the backing of a billionaire, Mervis said.
However, Bourbon cautioned against Sweet Water’s “smooth talk.”
“This could prove to be detrimental in setting the groundwork for any other truly sustainable companies developing on their own,” Bouron said. “As was the motto with the banks, SWO is trying to become so large that it would be impossible to shut them down.”
In a 2010 initial assessment report of Sweet Water, Tom Knoll, its former director of replication, wrote that Sweet Water Organics faced a “critical inflection point.”
“Sweet Water is right at the stage when most businesses go through an awkward growth/transition phase,” Knoll predicted. “When this type of transition is handled poorly, it can cause high employee turnover, low morale, inefficient systems, loss of credibility with stakeholders, and ultimately decreased impact. When it is handled well, it can help vault a small organization into the high-growth phase. Instead of resisting change, we must embrace it now.”
The promise of aquaponics is about eradicating “urban food deserts,” increasing nutrition, decreasing disease, improving environments, revitalizing urban economies, bringing communities together around food, and knowing what one is really consuming.
For many, Sweet Water represented a glorious David of Local Food pitted against the subsidized Goliath of Big Agriculture. As public awareness about alternatives to Big Ag grows, this battle has intensified—but one company does not wield the only sling.
If there’s a lesson in all this, it’s that even the most noble experiment merits critical consideration. Sweet Water capitalized on emotional appeals about the urban agriculture movement. Criticisms of the company do not invalidate the spirit of that movement, nor its aims. And, like many businesses, that Sweet Water exists at all is a testament to two guys who decided they wanted to change the world and just set out to do it.
But it’s important to note that public investment decisions were made without the presentation of evidence that taxpayer money would support a successful methodology. The desire for growth masked recent organizational turmoil and flawed production practices.
The city backed Sweet Water on faith in its future—implicitly fearing its failure—not based on a track record that suggested true sustainability.
Several summers ago for an unrelated story, the Compass spoke with Will Allen of Milwaukee’s Growing Power farm and asked him about Sweet Water, which was just then coming into vogue. Allen said Growing Power had been fish farming for 16 years and that the biggest challenge wasn’t constructing the systems but maintaining them. His advice then? Start small, learn the systems, then build bigger.
“Many of the upstart organizations are going to learn that they have to be patient,” Allen said. “You don’t learn to farm overnight.”
Michael Timm is a freelance writer and graduate student at UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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