Sweet Water urban farm expanding
July 2, 2010
By Michael Timm
One year after the first young fish were plopped into the trenches at Bay View-based Sweet Water Organics, the urban fish and vegetable farm is in the midst of expansion.
Outside, just north of Sweet Water’s repurposed industrial complex at 2121 S. Robinson Ave., eight greenhouses for growing plants and nine 5,000-gallon insulated trenches to raise another 35,000 fish are being built, with completion expected in August. A Verti-Gro aquaponic system of stacked potted plants is planned for these greenhouses and one will be dedicated for educational uses.
Water from the fish tanks will circulate through the plants in the greenhouses-Sweet Water uses an aquaponic system where fish waste in the water fertilizes the plants, which, along with bacteria, clean the water for the fish.
Sweet Water now has a total of seven indoor 10,000-gallon in-ground trenches (fish raceways) and three smaller ones. Ten more 10,000-gallon raceways are planned for inside the complex and are hoped for by the fall.
Sweet Water is working toward 34 fish systems total, in order to produce fish every five to seven days, said facility manager Henry Hebert. Hebert thinks Sweet Water will meet that goal about one year from now, adding that it takes 12 months for fish in each system to reach maturity.
Right now, about 45,000 tilapia and 33,000 perch are swimming through Sweet Water systems.
According to Hebert, demand is high and the challenge is to build up capacity. “Right now we know we’ve got a draw,” Hebert said. “It’s matter of how we ration it out.”
Selling Produce to Local Markets
Thousands of tilapia will mature in mid-August, with the perch maturing in October, but Sweet Water has already been busy selling produce to local markets and restaurants.
Every week, Sweet Water sells 30 pounds of greens, including lettuce and watercress, to Honeypie and Comet, according to Theresa Kopac, Sweet Water’s chief executive director. It also sells 20 pounds to Coquette Café and 20-40 pounds to Beans & Barley. Every Tuesday and Friday Honeypie special-orders chard and basil.
In the new greenhouses, Kopac said Sweet Water will start growing tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers as well.
Sweet Water plans a marketplace on site, to be open several days during the week, where the public can buy fresh fish and produce. It will have an old-Milwaukee hardware store feel and is also expected to open in August.
“We really love the idea of selling directly to people, having them come here and have the whole experience,” Kopac said.
Sweet Water also has a booth at both the South Shore and East Side farmers markets. Starting this month, Kopac said the plan is to sell certificates there good for a fish. In August, certificate-holders can come by Sweet Water Organics at the posted hours with a cooler to pick up their fish.
Sweet Water does not yet have its own processing facilities, so fish are often still alive when sold, literally flopping on ice.
“Right now all our restaurants will take whole fish so it’s not a problem,” said Sweet Water president Josh Fraundorf, but he wants to add on-site processing to keep things local and be more vertically integrated. Current plans are for the tilapia to be processed at Rushing Waters Fisheries in Palmyra, Wis. and the perch at Schwartz Fish Co. in Sheboygan, Wis.
Selling their fish wholesale is difficult, partly because the volume of fish in demand from local retailers exceeds what they can currently produce.
“Unfortunately we just don’t have the volume,” for the larger local retailers who’ve expressed interest like Roundy’s and Whole Foods, Fraundorf said. But in July Fraundorf said Sweet Water will start a smaller-scale relationship with Roundy’s in a few specialized venues. Fraundorf also hopes to sell fish at Beans & Barley and Outpost Natural Foods.
Sweet Water now employs eight full-time employees, Fraundorf said, with 40 total employees anticipated in 2011. Fraundorf looks to achieve profitability this fall, less than two years from the company’s startup.
Fraundorf’s goal is to build three Sweet Water facilities in the city of Milwaukee in the next five years. Sweet Water is financed by personal investments and a couple of local business investors, Fraundorf said.
Tilapia are being phased out as Sweet Water focuses on perch. Tilapia are hardier fish, and raising them allowed Sweet Water to tweak and optimize their aquaculture system with less risk of killing off valuable floating stock. But Hebert said the “bulletproof” tilapia aren’t very local-they’re imported from New Mexico-and it would be difficult to compete against Chinese farm-raised tilapia.
Pushing the Frontiers
Perch are central to the Sweet Water mission.
Hebert lamented the fact that so many perch fried in Milwaukee now actually come from Canada. “We’re trying to bring back that local fish fry,” he said.
Sweet Water is also hoping to change the way people think about and interact with their food, its price, and what they’re paying for.
“I don’t need 500 oranges for a dollar,” Hebert said. “I call it the Walmart mentality. We need to get away from that. America is not a race to the bottom.”
Instead, Hebert said Sweet Water operates on a “JIT” or just-in-time approach to food freshness. For example, he said, lettuce harvested at 7am is shipped out by 10am.
Nationally and internationally, people are taking notice of what’s going on at this Bay View enterprise. Fraundorf said people have traveled from as far as India and Holland to knock at their door, eager to learn how Sweet Water is implementing Will Allen’s aquaponic aquaculture system at a commercial scale. “Siberian missionaries showed up outside,” Kopac added.
“This is the model,” Fraundorf said with pride. “This is the biggest in the world.”
Sweet Water Foundation
Earlier this year, Sweet Water started the nonprofit Sweet Water Foundation, whose mission is to educate the public about urban agriculture and converting waste into resource. So far it’s developed partnerships with the Scooter Foundation, National Association of Black Veterans, Victory Garden Initiative, Bay View Hide House Community Gardens, and Honey Creek School, where it helped build raised garden beds. A classroom space for the foundation is planned in the Sweet Water facility.
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