Down on the farm in Bay View
July 31, 2009
By Casey Twanow
Fish, sprouts, and veggies
In the open, light-filled space of a repurposed factory, Will Allen, a towering urban farmer and CEO in a sleeveless hoodie, declared, “Urban farming has gone from a movement to a revolution.” Allen made this observation July 8, when he was present to watch the newest members of the revolution-1,200 small yellow perch-arrive at Sweet Water Organics.
Sweet Water is a nascent commercial fish farm opening at 2121 S. Robinson Ave. in a complex of industrial buildings tucked away in northwestern Bay View. The owners, Josh Fraundorf, Steve Lindner, and James Godsil, intend to sell yellow perch and tilapia to local restaurants and grocers. On July 22 another 1,200 perch and 33,000 tilapia swam into Sweet Water’s tanks. In all, 5,000 perch will be fattened up for the farm’s first winter harvest. The tilapia should reach market-size in nine months.
Leading Edge of Change
Sweet Water is evidence of the changes rippling through the way we eat. Milwaukeeans are looking for local, sustainable foods, frequenting farmers markets, and counting the “miles to market” at Outpost Natural Foods.
At the epicenter of local change is Growing Power, the two-acre urban farm on Silver Spring Drive that Allen founded in 1993. Growing Power inspires school kids and entrepreneurs alike with the fresh produce, meat, and fish it grows in the heart of the city. Growing Power now has satellite farms and community gardens around Milwaukee and Chicago. In 2008 Allen was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (aka genius grant) and he was recently featured in the New York Times.
Fraundorf, Lindner, and Godsil are following Allen’s lead, growing fish and plants in a three-tiered aquaponic system. In aquaponics, fish and plants are grown in one integrated structure. Fish waste fertilizes the plants, and plants and bacteria clean the water for the fish. Aquaponic systems mimic the natural water purification that takes place in streams and wetlands.
On July 8, Sweet Water’s owners ceremonially poured the first yellow perch into an 11,000-gallon raceway, a long channel cut six feet into the building’s concrete floor. The four-inch-long fish made a short trip that morning from UWM’s Great Lakes WATER Institute in large buckets in the back of a truck. Allen arrived to applause, and a dozen other community partners and friends were gathered, some wearing Sweet Water T-shirts. Godsil made sure everyone hefted a bucket of perch; pictures were snapped and backs patted. “We’re going to have some serious fish fries between here, the WATER Institute, and Growing Power,” laughed Allen. “We should never be without fish.”
Sweet Water’s perch swim in one of the fish farm’s four parallel raceways. Two raceways house tilapia, and another is currently empty. Additional raceways are planned in the future. Water from each raceway is pumped up to two stacked beds of pea gravel. Water flows across the gravel, where hard-working bacteria break down extra food and ammonia from fish wastes, converting it into nitrates that plants can absorb. In the middle bed this nutrient-rich water is filtered by tiny watercress plants, and in the top bed it fertilizes potted herbs, sprouts, and vegetables. Then the naturally cleaned water pours back down to the fish.
“This is actually a simple, easy way to grow fish. Most of the work is done for you by the system itself,” said Rick Mueller, Growing Power’s Milwaukee projects assistant who focuses on aquaponics. The only regular inputs are oxygen (through an aeration system), commercial fish food, and heat. Tilapia, hardy fish native to Africa but farmed worldwide, thrive in warm waters so Sweet Water will use pool heaters to maintain their raceways at 84 degrees. Water for the yellow perch, a Great Lakes native, will be warmed to 71 degrees.
Allen said small aquaponic systems are perfect for urban backyards and basements, with “sweat equity” being the major capital investment. But, he said smiling, “There are more parts of it than meet the eye.”
Sweet Water, like Growing Power, also grows worms. Twenty-six wooden worm bins are shelved along one wall and the worms are fed from a large compost pile behind the building. Worm castings (excrement) are essential to the system, a rich source of minerals and nutrients for the potted plants. During an earlier tour, Godsil dug into a bin and produced handfuls of black compost with a few thin, wriggling worms. “They’re not as gloriously throbbing with worms as Growing Power’s yet,” he said of the bins, but the worms will double in just a few months. Growing Power sometimes feeds surplus worms to their yellow perch.
Sweet Water seeded sprouts and arugula greens in worm castings in late June, and on the tour Godsil picked a few to pass around. The tiny leaves packed a lot of flavor; the radish sprouts had a spicy kick, the sunflower sprouts a nutty taste.
Lindner said they’ve thus far invested approximately $110,000 or $120,000 in the endeavor. Nearly everything at Sweet Water has the potential to earn profit. The owners are talking with Beans & Barley about selling the fish and with Outpost Natural Foods about selling the herbs. Roundy’s has expressed interested in Sweet Water too, Fraundorf said. Ideally, the watercress, sprouts, and veggies will be harvested and sold. Even the worm castings and the worms themselves can be sold to gardeners.
The owners expect their first harvest and sales in November or December. Right now, local restaurants such as Rip Tide will pay $6 or $7 per pound for fresh yellow perch, and about $4 per pound for fresh tilapia, but seafood prices fluctuate. Barnacle Bud’s has not stocked high-priced yellow perch in years, but kitchen manager Dennis Stukel said they would buy the Wisconsin favorite at a reasonable price.
According to the Sweet Water website, the farm’s annual production will reach 100,000 fish in two years, and Lindner said they will soon have seven raceways in operation. He said that operating costs and profit will fluctuate as the owners tweak the system. Godsil considers the early stages of their venture experimental, a learning process.
Sweet Water’s profit margins may depend on its light and heat requirements. At Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE), students in professor Michael Swedish’s class studied the conversion of an existing warehouse into a tilapia farm. They created a computer model to analyze production costs and profits for an aquaponic system. One finding was that a large operation depending entirely on artificial light was not feasible. “You need to pull in as much natural light as you can get,” Swedish summarized.
Light floods Sweet Water’s plant beds from windows near the 50-foot ceiling, but if the plants need supplementary light during part or all of the year, operating costs will rise. Swedish’s students also found that the scale of an aquaponic system is limited by the nutrients plants can uptake. Large-scale fish farms might require partial treatment to deal with fish wastes.
Swedish and Godsil have discussed alternative heating strategies to reduce the cost and energy of keeping the fish raceways warm. One of their most intriguing ideas is transferring heat from Sweet Water’s compost pile to the water. Swedish may assign a group of MSOE students to study the idea this fall.
Of building their urban fish farm, Lindner said, “It’s been a lot of work-more than I anticipated.” The biggest challenge was finding time. He already works long hours as a home-builder and landlord-he owns the building that Sweet Water leases-and Godsil and Fraundorf run a roofing company.
Originally, Fraundorf, an outdoorsman and gardener, hoped to raise fish in a smaller space he and Godsil were renting from Lindner. He took Lindner to Growing Power (where Godsil serves on the board of directors) to illustrate his idea. Five minutes into that tour, Lindner said, “You’re in the wrong space.”
He showed Fraundorf the high-ceilinged former factory in the same complex as their smaller rental space. Most recently, a tulip bulb business had rented the 11,000 square feet from Lindner as cold storage but they needed to downsize. “The windows were boarded up, but you could see it had the potential,” Fraundorf said.
He, Lindner, and Godsil decided to collaborate and bring Fraundorf’s plan to life. Fraundorf said of his partners, “Godsil, being Godsil, is a PR genius. And Steve is kind of a MacGyver.”
Godsil generated buzz through his numerous email lists and contacts. All three men applied their skills, with help from friends, to the renovations and construction. They repaired the roof, replaced the windows, broke out concrete floors, and constructed the raceways and plant beds. Fraundorf obtained permits for the tilapia (because it’s a non-native species) from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and registered the fish farm with the DNR and the city of Milwaukee.
When they were ready for plants and fish, the Sweet Water owners looked to Allen and UWM Great Lakes WATER Institute scientist Fred Binkowski for guidance.
Allen shared lessons from designing and tweaking his aquaponic system at Growing Power as well as his expertise in composting and worm culture. At Sweet Water on July 8 Allen remarked, indicating the old factory building, “A total transformation-it’s beautiful.” He looked over the system, and gave casual advice. “You might want to lower those grow lights,” he said as he looked at plant bed.
Binkowski offered research results from raising yellow perch in a commercial-size recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) at WATER. He coordinates aquaculture outreach programs through WATER’s Great Lakes Aquaculture Center and the UW Sea Grant Advisory Program (Wisconsin Sea Grant is a statewide research and education program focused on the Great Lakes). Binkowski has also studied perch in Growing Power’s aquaponic system for the past two years and has visited Sweet Water weekly to monitor water quality and teach the owners testing procedures.
To stock the raceways, Sweet Water ordered tilapia fingerlings (young fish) for 11 cents a piece from AmeriCulture, Inc. in New Mexico. Binkowski is providing the 5,000 perch as part of a cooperative research agreement between Sweet Water and WATER’s Aquaculture Center. “We’re adding them in smaller batches to make sure we don’t overload the system.”
Other community partners fuel Sweet Water’s steaming pile of compost. Godsil picks up several 50-gallon barrels of fruit and vegetable waste from the Holt Avenue Pick ‘n Save daily. Roast Coffee Company and the Great Lakes Distillery contribute organic waste, and the city of Milwaukee, Hawks Nursery, and Asplundh Tree Experts add woodchips and leaves. In turn, these partners avoid disposal costs and reduce their landfill waste.
Godsil said Sweet Water will continue forming these local cooperative links. These links will contribute to his big vision of Sweet Water as a place for residents to meet, learn skills, and build community self-reliance. Already, people stop in daily to tour and ask questions, and a “Sweet Water Guild School” that will teach composting, woodworking, coppersmithing, and other skills is in the planning stages. With boundless and contagious idealism, Godsil describes his vision of Sweet Water in a few years: guild classes, a farmers market, adjoining spaces filled with food co-ops, restaurants, and workshops for urban artists and artisans. “I want to energize Milwaukee with arugula,” he said smiling.
Milwaukee Leads the World
Milwaukee is emerging as a leader in the urban farming revolution, especially in aquaculture. “We are absolutely the leader of urban agriculture in the nation if not the world,” said Allen. Local organizations are recruiting more urban agrarians through education. Growing Power has regular workshops, and a nonprofit Urban Aquaculture Center (featured in a February Compass H20 column) that will include an education center as well as a production facility that is in development. This winter, Wisconsin Sea Grant will launch an Urban Aquaculture Initiative to help fish farmers in cities. “What we want to do is give them the tools they need,” said Binkowski, who is helping develop a work plan. The program will not offer direct funding for farmers, but will bolster the regional urban aquaculture industry by providing education and technical support. “I see it as a huge step in the right direction,” Binkowski said.
Aquaculture has been increasing around the country, and urban fish farms like Sweet Water are on the cutting edge. Purdue University’s Kwamena Quagrainie, who specializes in aquaculture marketing, does not know of any other commercial urban fish farms. Brooklyn College professor Martin Schreibman, who has developed a model RAS for urban fish farms, has noticed “a sudden surge of energy, interest, and activity” related to urban aquaculture. Schreibman, who cannot sell his fish because of academic rules at his college, donates them to homeless shelters.
So far, U.S. aquaculture doesn’t come close to meeting domestic demand for fish. According to the Department of Agriculture, in 2005 the United States imported 300 million pounds of tilapia but produced only 17 million. The North Central Regional Aquaculture Center estimates that the yellow perch market could absorb at least 50 million more pounds per year.
Urban fish farms may help fill these gaps, with Milwaukee and other cities reaping economic, health, and environmental benefits. Urban agriculture and aquaculture provide jobs near a ready workforce, fresh foods for underserved populations, reductions in fossil fuels for food transport, and a use for empty industrial buildings.
If Sweet Water succeeds, it will provide a valuable business model for entrepreneurs in Milwaukee and other cities. It will also strengthen the current of change that is reshaping how we grow our food. “We’re not only growing fish but growing knowledge,” said Godsil.
Email James Godsil for Sweet Water samples or tours: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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