Scrutiny reveals troubled Sweet Water

July 1, 2012

A $250,000 public loan supported Sweet Water’s outdoor expansion. Former employees have criticized Sweet Water management for past failures. —photo Monica Ray

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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.”
—Jim Godsil,
Sweet Water Foundation president

Management Responds

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.

Fish Killed

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 holds a perch.  —photo Sweet Water Organics

Density Problem

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.

—photo Monica Ray

Effluent Discharged

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.

Indoor systems scaled up from the Growing Power model. —photo Monica Ray

Sustainable Systems?

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.”

 

Phase 5 in June 2012.—photo Monica Ray

Tanks inside the fish house. —photo Monica Ray

 

Plants will float on rafts in these greenhouse tanks. —photo Monica Ray

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.

Tanks Buried

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.

Permitting Issues?

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.

From left: James Godsil, SWO; Barry Grossman, Foley & Lardner and the Water Council; Randall Thompson, IBM; Dan Casanova, Redevelopment Authority of City of Milwaukee; Shelley Jurewicz, FaB Milwaukee, M7; Rocky Marcoux, Milwaukee Dept. of City Development; Josh Fraundorf, SWO.

Political Backstory

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.

Job Creation?

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.

Financing Challenge

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.”

Lettuce

Greeens, not fish are the aquaponics cash crop. —photo Monica Ray

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.”

Attracting Interest

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.

 

 

PortFish’s Model 3. —Pat Wilborn

 

Aquaponics Elsewhere

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.”

Developing Science

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.”

Conflicting Visions

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 Larger Story

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 platypus.found@yahoo.com.


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Comments

23 Comments on "Scrutiny reveals troubled Sweet Water"

  1. Scott on Mon, 2nd Jul 2012 12:24 pm 

    Even thought it’s sad to read, this is excellent journalism, Michael. Keep it up!

  2. James Godsil on Mon, 2nd Jul 2012 4:29 pm 

    Thanks to the power of the internet we have a chance to have a public dialogue about the problems and possibilities facing “Sweet Water 1.0,” which includes Sweet Water Organics 3.0, the Sweet Water Foundation 2.0, and a host of “partners” local, regional, national, and global. Here is a note from one of the Sweet Water Foundation partners in the project that has introduced aquaponics to Kerela India. Josh Fraundorf and a lot of people paid a lot of dues to help launch the Sweet Water Foundation, as did many, including the angry ex-employees mentioned in this article.

    Your vision of introducing Aquaponics to India successfully has happened and now it needs to be used to further develop local food growing knowhow with the system.

    The proof of system knowledge having been delivered is that one St. Albert’s College student of very modest means built a complete functioning aquaponic system that is a miniature of the laboratory scale aquaponic system that we built at the St. Alberts College wet lab.

    Here is a link to the Growing Networks weebly website for viewing a timelapse video of the system construction and mural painting at the wet lab of St. Alberts College, Aquaculture Department in Ernakulam, Kerala, India. http://growingnetworks.weebly.com/index.html

    OR directly on Vimeo at http://vimeo.com/44758325

    This 2 minute YouTube video is to see the components of the system and the mural painted in the Wet Lab by the student team. http://youtu.be/zqwb0x8DqRg

    Thanks for all your support. The internship program officially ended on June 30 with a wonderful farewell event organized by St. Alberts College and a music/dance celebration at 11 AM in the aquaculture class room complete with disco lights and all the students from US and SAC Aquaculture department, faculty and staff.

    I welcome an exchange around some of the challenges raised in this essay and around some of the possibilities that Josh Frandorf and SWO’s inspiring team continue to offer Milwaukee and beyond. godsil.james@gmail.com.

    Life’s not about falling down it’s about getting back up. Sweet Water, i.e. “The Farm,” “The Academy,” and many brilliant partners, is making a great contribution to our effort to work with nature.

  3. Jesse on Mon, 2nd Jul 2012 5:41 pm 

    Michael Timm,
    Very good reporting. Question though. In the article you stated: “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.”

    Could you elaborate on what you meant by “One way or another…”

  4. Bobby on Mon, 2nd Jul 2012 8:38 pm 

    An interesting article that touches on a company with a past that is anything but ordinary. It raises some interesting points, but it seems to be based largely on conjecture. The main source for the article is Jessie Hull, a guy who got screwed on back pay, was “forced” to sacrifice his morals for SWO, and most importantly, is starting a competing company!

    it’s very sad that the reporter spent ~6 months crafting a story that came out so insanely biased.

    When you read between the lines, it appears that sweet water went through some really rough times about a year ago and the city came in and saved them. now they have an improving business, are securing more grants, and have learned a good amount of lessons. they’re definitely trying a new business model and hopefully they will find a good amount of success. That would be good for bay view, milwaukee, and anyone who eats on a daily basis.

  5. James Carlson on Mon, 2nd Jul 2012 9:46 pm 

    Michael,

    I’m incredibly impressed by your journalism. This is the kind of story that creates an informed commonwealth. You tell the truth, you share data, you consider the story from every angle, and you present people, information, and interests together at a level of depth that should and does inspire. What’s missing is drama–and thank you for leaving it out. I’ll make that part up myself, and you left plenty of room for me.

    *Thank you* for that.

    Sweet Water is an audacious experiment. How many other American cities are seriously exploring UrbAg? (The IBM report might have that data.) It’s probably not a large number. It’s telling that we had to go as far away as Scotland to get an expert to help design the Phase 5 system. I respect the audacity of what Sweet Water is attempting to do, even as I respect the systems of economic value creation that need accountability, transparency, and effectiveness.

    Consider the audacity of NASA’s landing of Curiosity on Mars on August 5 at 1030EST. Firing a bullet at another planet, with an SUV-sized rover inside the tip, lowering the rover to the surface with a *crane* which then flys away? All done in under 7 minutes, when it takes light itself 14 minutes to reach Earth. (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ki_Af_o9Q9s)

    I believe NASA’s mission will work, though. All the people I’ve met from NASA are smart and passionate. All the people I’ve met from Sweet Water are the same. Every growing organization doing something audacious goes through its troubles. (Humanity only successfully completes a Mars mission 20% of the time.)

    Sweet Water reaches for the stars, and puts Milwaukee amongst them. If any of the money I have put into the City’s coffers goes towards that, I have no complaints.

    James Carlson
    Founder, Bucketworks

  6. Michael Timm on Tue, 3rd Jul 2012 10:37 am 

    In response to the question about “One way or another,” there were multiple invoices for greenhouse materials and other materials, not one giant one for $55,105.09, and there were a lot of materials itemized on those invoices.

  7. A Cautionary Tale in Commercial Aquaponics | Pittsburgh Aquaponics on Tue, 3rd Jul 2012 1:37 pm 

    […] Source: Bay View Compass […]

  8. Jan PIerce on Tue, 3rd Jul 2012 7:55 pm 

    Nice work Mike.

  9. Jesse on Thu, 5th Jul 2012 6:43 pm 

    Interesting Bobby. Do you have any personal or professional affiliation with SWO? You seem to know things that most people wouldn’t.
    I’m certainly not bothered that you consider me to be the main source; however, if you look back at this and other articles, you’ll see I‘m not alone. Some of them chose to remain anonymous in their comments, and I’ve definitely been the most vocal, but that doesn’t mean I’m the only one who’s aware of what was and is going on.

    To your points:
    1- “[Article] based on conjecture”: Again, look back at this and other articles. I’ll admit that there are statements and opinions expressed by former employees, but nearly everything is based on verifiable information, some of it even coming from SWO’s own documentation to the city of Milwaukee.

    2- “Jesse… got screwed on back pay”. Well, yeah, and not just me. Seven employees total to be exact, and for weeks to months at a time. Some settled for less, others simply didn’t pursue the matter because from their past history with Josh, they didn’t think he would ever pay them.
    Do you not find it perplexing that Josh got caught in yet another lie on this subject (“a couple weeks” according to Josh and the BVCompass versus “9 weeks” according to Josh and the DWD)? And for the record, I can prove I actually went 13 weeks w/o pay between fall 2010-spring 2011, didn’t get the bulk of that until spring 2012, and was one of the people who settled for less than what I was owed.

    3- “…forced to sacrifice his morals”: Wow, man -you have no idea. But if you’d ever like to get together, I’m confident I can respond well to any questions you have. That said, I doubt that certain folks at SWO will encourage you to actually do that.

    4- “…starting a competing company”: I wondered when this would come up.
    Are you under the illusion that we thought coming forward would make it easier for Imagine Aquaponics to start a business in Milwaukee? We risked a lot, and would likely fair much better trying to latch onto a politician looking for another campaign token or net the next unsuspecting investor. But attempts have already failed miserably in trying to replicate SWO elsewhere, and investors are onto that… as they should be! The crux of this is we couldn’t stand by while the city unwittingly gave SWO even more money (and potentially lakefront property) unless the leaders of SWO proved they could do what they said they would with the last quarter million, and perhaps operate under some semblance of ‘best practices’.
    So after a year of turning down reporters who wanted this story, we finally came forward with what we could easily prove (and what so many people in town knew about anyway).

    5- “When you read between the lines…”: Months without pay, fish grown in toxic conditions before being buried in shallow holes, materials illegally backfilled, employees asked to falsify documents, hundreds of thousands of dollars unaccounted for… Bobby, the former employees of Sweet Water Organics endured a hell of a lot, and in no way did they simply leave on a whim.

    My best to you.

  10. Angelo on Sat, 7th Jul 2012 3:10 pm 

    I have no first hand experience with aquaponics, and to be honest, I have very limited knowledge of even the basics. One thing is certain though,aquaponics is tricky. I, as a local consumer/customer/green living advocate, expect bumps in the road for SWO, albeit some of the bumps seem to be more like sinkhole or buckled pavement. I remember a few years back touring the almost empty warehouse space. There were just huge empty pools in a dingy enormous space. To see the progress first hand I am proud to have such an undertaking happening in my backyard. I am disturbed that the Bay View Compass printed an article that places SWO in such a dark light so early in their endeavor. Let’s not be so quick to judge. Everybody’s darling, Growing Power, was not built in a day. I’d bet Will has his problems for at least the first several years, probably more, and maybe even now. And one thing I do know about is quitting a job and feeling very disgruntled and disrespected. I’m always outspoken when that happens to me, so I understand Josh’s point of view completely. Not being paid is inexcusable, and illegal. But it’s all taken care of at this point. Once again, let’s be proud to have SWO in our community. They will figure it out. Remember our state motto, ‘Forward’. Slinging mud at people with similar environmental concerns is backward.

  11. Angelo on Sat, 7th Jul 2012 3:48 pm 

    ^ I meant Jesse, not Josh.

  12. John on Sat, 7th Jul 2012 11:29 pm 

    This is not the first article I have read about Sweet Water that is negative, and I have taken multiple tours and seen their progression (our lack there of). what scares me is how quickly people will dismiss negative comments about a company just because they believe in a similar goal. These in no way seem to be normal speed bumps in starting up a company, especially a for profit. my question is, how did Josh start a company he clearly knew nothing about? When requesting money from the city Josh stated that he already spent over a million dollars and he just needs another $250,000. This sounds more like a drug addict looking for another fix rather than a passionate owner of an urban farm needing help to supply food to the community.

  13. Irene Parthum on Mon, 16th Jul 2012 10:22 am 

     
    I read with interest the July 2, 2012 Bay View Compass article “Scrutiny Reveals Troubled Sweet Water”.  It raised more questions about the bias of the quoted and anonymous sources, and the resultant biased view of Sweet Water, than it answered about aquaponics and public/private partnerships in business development.
     
    Will Allen of Growing Power was recently interviewed nationally on “The Colbert Report” about the urban gardening and aquaponics and a Channel 10 cooking show featured product from Sweet Water at Cafe at the Plaza on the east side, with glowing reviews of product freshness quality, so this is a topic of current interest to our community.  The article notes that Sweet Water listed 11 local businesses being supplied in 2011, and another 9 interested in expanding purchases.
     
    The article could have been about the struggles of a small local business to break into this new industry with limited self-funding, the difficulties in translating the Will Allen model from non-profit to a larger scale business for profit, and the City of Milwaukee stepping in to provide very limited funding ($250K) to bridge the gap until Sweet Water turned the corner.  
     
    The author relied heavily upon disgruntled former employees like Ryan Bourbon and Jesse Hull, which is always a slippery slope.  They are very critical not only of Sweet Water’s business model, but personally attack the motives of its founders, who put their own money on the line to start the company.  It appears the wage disputes of the former employees had merit and were settled by Sweet Water.  So one is left to wonder why they still have such an axe to grind against their former employer.  They are clearly purists about aquaponics, to such an extent that they contacted a vet to determine if fish being grown for food were being killed humanely.   What the article does not say is whether they left Sweet Water of their own volition, or were terminated, which could shed light on both their motives and credibility.   Buried deep in the article is the clue to Hull’s continued criticism, as it is revealed that he plans to become the competition, in starting his own aquaponics business.  This makes the information highly suspect.
     
    The reporter’s other source appears to be “anonymous” DNR complaints lodged against Sweet Water.   In the end, it appears these complaints were substantially baseless, a point which is glossed over in the article.  Except for a warning (without a fine) for burying beams without getting a solid waste disposal waiver from the DNR and cautioning the architect to pull all necessary permits.  The article reveals that Sweet Water executives were fully transparent with both the city and the reporter, to the point where Godsil is actually criticized for providing too much information (“over 30 unsolicited emails to accentuate the positives about Sweet Water”).  It hardly seems fair to criticize Fraundorf and Godsil, who put their own financial future on the line in starting this business, for wanting to grow and profit from their efforts.
     
    The reporter did contact Will Allen (Growing Power), as well as Milwaukee area competitors in the for profit aquaponics industry such as Pat Wilborn (PortFish), and ebecca Nelson (Nelson & Pade).  It is interesting that they acknowledge the trial and error nature of this type of start up, and do not level the type of criticism of Sweet Water that the disgruntled former employees scornfully heap.
     
    The development of any new business clearly involves some level of trial and error. It appears that Sweet Water’s efforts to translate the small-scale Growing Power model to a for-profit business had its share.  The article reveals that Sweet Water consulted  with “aquaculture expert” Fred Binkowski at UW-Milwaukee, and more recently overhauled their systems with the assistance of the “rock star of the aquaponics world”, Charlie Price of Aquaponics UK.  While the article could have concluded that Sweet Water has moved past its growing pains, learned from experience, and is now on the path to becoming sustainable, this was clearly not the author’s spin.  As author Timm is a graduate student at UW-M’s School of Freshwater Science, the negativity of this piece raises more questions about bias in investigative journalism than it answers about the merits of Sweet Water’s business model.
     
    The reader would have benefitted from a less skewed perspective, and perhaps information from Sweet Water’s local purchasers, specialty shops and restaurants, as to the quality of the product, and benefit to Milwaukee, of supporting a start up business to encourage more entrepreneurs to make Milwaukee a home, insteading traditional Milwaukee habit of criticizing innovation.  I am glad to see that the City of Milwaukee saw the merit in supporting this start-up business, and hope it will survive long enough for the Bayview Compass to write a follow-up on it turning the corner.

    Irene Parthum
    Milwaukee County resident

  14. Krista on Thu, 19th Jul 2012 1:44 pm 

    I wholeheartedly agree with John. Just b/c SWO is local and supposedly dealing with a sustainable model does not bar is from healthy scrutiny. I wouldn’t defend a business or non-profit with this sort of poor organization and leadership, regardless of its goal or passion. Start small, grow bigger…INVOLVE THE COMMUNITY.

  15. Jesse on Thu, 19th Jul 2012 3:21 pm 

    Irene,
    Being a Milwaukee County resident myself, I can appreciate your interest in supporting a business that is struggling to form a profitable business model in our area.
    A few responses to your comment:

    1- “[Former employees] are clearly purists about aquaponics, to such an extent that they contacted a vet to determine if fish being grown for food were being killed humanely”.

    The employees didn’t call the vet in. We were told NOT to by our then employer, Josh Fraundorf. Fred Binkowski, the aquaculture expert from the Great Lakes Water Institute, called in the vet after observing a situation in which fish were being lifted from the water missing fins, eyes, and had exposed sores covering their bodies.
    It wasn’t that the food fish were being killed inhumanely (although that was an issue as well). It was because they were being RAISED inhumanely and that we were being asked to dispose of them illegally.

    2- “…complaints were substantially baseless…except for a warning (without a fine) for burying beams without getting a solid waste disposal waiver from the DNR…”

    Who told you that SWO buried “beams”, Irene?
    Follow the link and look at these pictures, they show the entirety of what was back filled in 2011:
    http://bloggingblue.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Outdoor-InGround-Tanks-Buried-at-SWO.pdf

    3- “The article could have been about the struggles of a small local business to break into this new industry with limited self-funding…and the City of Milwaukee stepping in to provide very limited funding ($250K) to bridge the gap until Sweet Water turned the corner.”

    Besides the two major financial inputs listed in the article- the $250,000 the city gave SW, and the $100,000 offered to build filtration for healthy fish production- there were private investments totaling $480,000 during the spring/summer of 2010. The city gave SWO the $250,000 without first checking to see that SWO was several hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, almost $25,000 behind on utility bills, and had employees walking out due to a toxic work environment, inhumane fish rearing conditions, thousands of dollars owed in back wages, etc (emphasis on “etc”). The city shouldn’t be in the business of bailing out companies, and taxpayers have a right to be concerned about the situation.
    As stated in the article, the $100,000 was “gone” before the filtration systems that investor wanted to see running could be finished. The $480,000 of private investment was meant to cover the expansion project, including all of the greenhouses that stand outside SWO now. After being told that the investment was “gone” and employees, out of LOYALTY, went the next 2 months without pay, we discovered that the greenhouses and most of the materials outside had never been paid for. Interestingly, the “specialized greenhouses” (that were already there) showed up again on the itemized list of needed infrastructure that SWO submitted to the city council to get the $250,000 in 2011. It doesn’t take much to see a pattern here.
    As for the “very limited funding ($250K)”, there are many business owners in Milwaukee who aren’t circling the drain and were paying their employees, who could have benefited from a forgivable loan and could have created jobs above the poverty line as a result.

    4- “Hull’s…plans to become the competition, in starting his own aquaponics business”

    I already responded that in my comment to Bobby above. We never saw putting egg on the face of the many people in Milwaukee (including city officials) who supported SWO as a step in establishing a business here. We risked coming forward because we believed, as did many others, that it was the right thing to do.

  16. George on Fri, 3rd Aug 2012 11:50 am 

    Nobody seems to be noticing the critical issue of business sustainability versus ecological sustainability that is thematic in this story. People who like the “nice idea” or efficient, economicaly and ecologically sustainable urban farming should not adopt an “ends justify the means” attitude when the means deployed have betrayed the core principles of the goals themselves. There is no evidence here that “shortcuts” (or infusions of tax dollars) will ever have the desired outcome.

    It seems that Fraundorf et al. were deeply ignorant and inexperienced or delusionally optimistic that they could force high density on the fish population and scale up a technology that experienced fish farmers (including Will Allen) know is not scalable. At the end of it all, SWO is realizing it’s going to focus on producing greens, not fish, as its main commercial product.

    There’s no indication SWO can be a big job-creator or high profit business, but the City of Milwaukee and others jumped on the bandwagon and have indeed been treating SWO as if it’s “too big to fail” because so many egos and professional reputations in the Barrett administration fear being exposed in the national media as dupes who drank their own greenwash. They should have done their homework and got behind more worthy innovators Milwaukee has in green triple bottom line enterprises.

    No doubt SWO came to be pressured by political and funding sources to grow like a “traditional” Milwaukee business, but it also seems Fraundorf and his partners did not know basic things like how many fish you can expect to have in a certain non-naturally enclosed volume of water and expect them to do well. Or how much water you’re going to have to filter or replace to keep them happy. Instead of starting small and learning, they tried to scale up a technology they did not understand, that could not do what they wanted it to do.

    Stupidly, the city leadership did not discern that buzz and happy feelings about SWO are not enough; that being like or learning from Will Allen is not enough, and that even Will is not running an economically sustainable business model. (He readily admits he is highly dependent on things other than the food he sells, and his model does not offer more than a very hard subsistence living if someone were to try to live off of it.)

    This is not NASA’s skilled and experienced engineers sending landers to Mars; this is farming and basic business as bungled by people who didn’t do the math or get the experience and knowledge they needed before they took public and private investment. It is also government leaders who like to grandstand more than look below the surface and think about long term viability.

    If you like the vision of commercial urban aquaponics as a goal, think about what that actually may mean, in concrete terms. Do you like it as a big business goal where growth in scale and employees are the true measures of success? Trying that with an unnatural, very wasteful, indoor operation has failed. Moving outside and trying a single level system with fewer fish to focus on greens instead is a good idea, but it is not innovative. It is a failure of the vision of urban farming where density or vertical scaling makes it possible to achieve profit per square foot commensurate to rural farms or the value of the the land if it were used for more traditional urban applications — housing, retail, manufacturing, etc.

  17. George on Tue, 7th Aug 2012 8:20 pm 

    My wife saw this news yesterday:
    http://seedstock.com/2012/07/25/from-trial-and-error-aquaponics-farm-in-northeast-finds-formula-for-growth/

    It’s about a big aquaponics system that’s been running for decades, very high tech, but still not profitable and not the winning formula.

    The more I read about this, the more I think a Mars landing is easier since it’s just a matter of getting your math right. Planetary ecosystems may not be something you can copy and make more efficient in an artificial, closed loop ecosystem.

    Aquaponics could be like the quest for the perpetual motion machine.

  18. Tom Hansen on Thu, 30th Aug 2012 10:35 am 

    I have read several comments in which the basic message is, SWO is being courageous and taking risks, aquaponics is hard, they’re trying to do the right thing, so how dare you criticize them.

    I believe that no one is above criticism, no matter how noble their intentions. Sitting on your hands and biting your tongue just because someone is “doing the right thing” or “is on our side” is the basis for much corruption and malfeasance in our society.

    Open and honest criticism, as long as it is based on the truth, can only help keep people honest and above-board. I believe that if SWO is to reach its potential, an article such as this, assuming the facts upon which it is based are truthful and accurate, can only help it to change direction, as need be, and to improve itself to better serve its mission.

    I also happen to believe that honest criticism of the article itself is just as valuable.

    However, to attack the author and publisher for daring to criticize, without actually substantially questioning the factual basis for such criticism, is, I believe, unwise. It is tantamount to encouraging a cover-up, which, particularly when public tax dollars are involved, is very concerning to us all.

  19. SWO story: Supports open and honest criticism : The Bay View Compass on Sun, 2nd Sep 2012 12:44 pm 

    […] Hansen (commentor on bayviewcompass.com) Share this:PrintEmailFacebookDigg Copyright 2012 by Bay View Compass. All rights reserved. This […]

  20. Matt on Sun, 9th Sep 2012 10:05 pm 

    Very interesting to read about all this drama!

    I’ve been looking into commercial aquaponics for about a month now. Overall, this story reads like an issue of bad management by the two founders.

  21. Sarah Taber on Wed, 19th Sep 2012 8:37 am 

    Unfortunately, this is pretty standard for aquaculture startups. Aquaculture requires huge amounts of capital up-front, so they try to push the envelope on raising fish to start paying it back, water quality deteriorates, fish die, debt becomes worse. Sludge buildup is a classic symptom– SWO is having a textbook case of Being An Aquaculture Startup.

    Some companies pull out of it, others don’t. Usually it’s availability of capital that ultimately makes the difference.

    The only thing I find disappointing about this story (as opposed to routine aquaculture problems) is how they took it out on employees. It sounds like a lot of the low morale may have come from not being up-front with employees about the typical difficulties encountered by new aquaculture companies. Unfortunately, that often comes from the management team not being honest with themselves about it.

    Will be interesting to see how it turns out.

    (PS. SWO: consider growing shellfish. Native freshwater mussels, or zebra mussels if you have to. They’ll filter out the particulates– the water quality problem that’s the most expensive to solve– and you can sell or compost the shellfish. Love, Sarah Taber.)

  22. Todd Katz on Tue, 16th Oct 2012 10:17 pm 

    I too have worked with Sweet Water, but from the Foundation side. And I believe this is a side that has been grossly overlooked. I teach at Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago and four years ago some of my students had a dream, to build a greenhouse and make it sustainable. We visited Growing Powers and really liked what they were doing and thought it would be cool to emulate their system in our greenhouse. Through an article about our project in a local newspaper in Chicago, I received a call from Emmanuel Pratt, the director of SWF. He offered his assistance in helping us build our aquaponics system. I agreed to his help but doubtful he would show up.

    True to his word he did show and for the next 4-6 hours he worked side by side with my students and myself on a Saturday morning. He spoke to us about what our roles were, invited us to look at the broader picture of what we were doing, to ask the questions like “So what?” “Why does what we are doing matter?” He helped us build our system and then he helped us get into touch with other people. Within 6 hours of him leaving that Saturday afternoon, he had found an investor who donated $1,000 to offset the cost of our materials.

    Within weeks he helped put me in touch with people who helped us to get our system running, who taught my students and I about aquaponics, how it works, the chemistry, the biology, and the potential impact on the community. With Pratt’s help he inspired students of mine to learn and do more than they had in the past, they were inspired to pursue their own passions, start their own businesses, do meaningful work and activism for the community.

    Pratt and I then worked together with other community members of Chicago-land and we talked, we looked at the needs of the communities we serve, and how, with one another we could make a difference. Honestly, we all became inspired. For me, this conversation and this interaction with Sweet Water Foundation changed how I approach teaching. For one week during the year my freshman design their own mini-aquaponics systems using Google Sketchup, they then speak with another local company, Brew and Grow and Sweet Water Foundation who help our students understand the types of aquaponics systems they are designed and how they work. The students then build their systems from scratch, get them working, install them in parallel with the school‘s aquaponics system, grow their plants do their water quality tests and make discoveries of their own.

    This to me is the essence of real science. Students have said how this one project has changed their perspective on science, there desire to want to learn more and do more with it would never have been possible without the initial community outreach that Emmanuel Pratt, through Sweet Water Foundation, had offered that one Saturday.

    Since that initial introduction manifested by Sweet Water Foundation, they continue to be an excellent resource for Whitney Young and many other schools in the Midwest. I think there is a whole lot more to this story than what is portrayed.

  23. James Godsil on Wed, 17th Oct 2012 11:17 am 

    Dear All,

    I have had to wait to offer my response to Michael Timm’s article, which get’s perhaps 50% of 10% of the Sweet Water
    story right! Good work, Michael! Aquaponics is complex stuff.
    And the human ecology of the Sweet Water emergence is also complex. As one of the key elders of both Sweet Water Organics(SWO), “the farm,” the Sweet Water Foundation(SWF), “the academy” and hundreds, eventually, God willing, thousands of partners in weaving, connecting webs across the nation, and the world, I am ready to offer MY Sweet Water story, MY Sweet Water “business plan.” If Kat Keller, the editor of this worthy newspaper allows, I will upload much of my story here,
    in hopes of inspiring others to learn from the Sweet Water mistakes, our imbecilities, avoidable and unavoidable, and be as inspired as have the hundreds of supporters who have given of their time, their money, their attention, and their labor, to advance the Sweet Water experiment, and their own aquaponics experiment, which we helped inspire. I deeply appreciate the effort it will take to wade through MY Sweet Water story. And I am happy to provide support for such readers’ aquaponics, urban agriculture, of small business/social entprise efforts. Sweet Water has benefited from the resources of Community Roofing & Restoration, which I co-created since 1975. I am blessed with more time in this mortal realm, maybe up through my 100th birthday party, if and only if I share my lessons in social forums like this. My e-mail is godsil.james@gmail.com. I am happy to answer questions my story inspires and to support YOUR aquaponics efforts.

    So the Sweet Water story, as any complex or even simple story, must be placed in its specific context. Sweet Water, all of us, are incredibly unique. What is our proper course of action depends upon where we are, who we work with, what we hope to accomplish, and a capacity to adjust in response to our inevitable mistakes. Trial and error. Fall down, get up. Fail to succeed. Stedfast grit in the face of mystery and our own idiocies.

    So MY Sweet Water story can begin with my vision of the Milwaukee Renaissance, which great out of my experience with The Bay View Renaissance. Sweet Water was not the creation of any one or two or 10 people. Sweet Water was, and is, the creation of a city passionate about re-imagining itself, about taking risks, accepting failures, in response to our transition imperative, our groping, halting, insufficiently intelligenced transformation of an industrial city into an ecological, an “organic” city. A new city co-created by…
    “organic authentics!”

    Here is what I posted at the Bay_View_Matters Yahoo group this morning:

    Dear Bay View Neighbors,

    When I moved to Bay View in 2002 I had hopes of bringing “The Riverwest Culture Meme” to Bay View, to contribute toward a “Bay View Renaissance.” I met with Bill Sell at Stone Creek Coffee in the summer of 2003 and told him about the powerful Riverwest E-mail network of 100 families(!) in on-line conversation, as neighbors but especially as citizens promoting and defending their neighborhood. Bill went home and took the Riverwest “Communication Meme” a step higher. He created…Bay_View_Matters, a yahoo group. Yahoo! Yahoo! A vital step toward a Bay View Renaissance! And, as the story unfolds, the Milwaukee Renaissance!

    Within a year, my memory tells me, that group played an important role in elevating the organizational capacity of Bay View and providing a forum for spirited conversation and debate. It was also very important in helping connect some brilliant young Bay View women to organize, with Bill a competent elder, the Bay View Neighborhood Association and the Bay View Bash. This was especially important because the BVNA created sufficient political, social, and cultural power that an old Bay View Business Association
    was displaced and its leader, a man of profound self-righteous rage, quick to call people liars, elitist in his scorn for anyone of less “stature,” moved away. Hurray! Hurray!

    And the BVM citizen forum played an important role in setting the stage for what I consider a grace-filled integration process in Bay View. (Yes, I know, it will take a generation and then be lacking. But we must start with first steps!) On October 24, 2004 an African American man named Frank Jude was brutally beaten by a number of Milwaukee police officers partying at a Bay View house. I was working with
    Cleo Pruitt of “The Rebirth of Freedom Project” and Jerry Ann Hamilton of the NAACP, doing our best both to inspire European and other Americans to welcome and support the NAACP National Convention, but also to organize an event at the Soldiers Home to honor veterans of color and eventually raise money for a memorial to that effect. Jerry Ann was joyous when about 10 Bay View residents, methinks informed through this forum, showed up at the NAACP office on MLK and pledged to join in a silent vigil in a public place to protest what was feared would be another in a long series of treating police brutality lightly. We won! And the officers were punished.

    I could, and eventually will, add to the story of the great value of the BVM yahoo group for the Bay View AND Milwaukee Renaissance. I am inspired to do so because the story of the Bay View and Milwaukee Renaissance is integral to the Sweet Water Story. Sweet Water’s stunning success in the innovation centers of America could not have happened but for the enormous resources of Bay View and Milwaukee that gave
    birth to Sweet Water, i.e. Sweet Water Organics(SWO), the farm, Sweet Water Foundation(SWF), the academy, and the scores, perhaps hundreds, soon thousands of people now awakened to the possibilities of aquaponics to address food security, global warming, educational, economic, and cultural issues we humans must steadfastly and creatively address.

    I owe Jesse Hull and Bill Lavelette, Michael Tim and Kat Keller, a great deal for inspiring me to tell MY Sweet Water story, in depth, from the mind and heart, astonished by its progress to date(with Jesse Hull a key contributor to that), tempted to daunting feelings at the challenge, steadfast in my belief that Milwaukee citizens will be happy at what their $.50 each investment brought them, their children, and, God willing, their children’s children..

    Milwaukee’s deepest investment in Sweet Water was not the loan that my young heroes Jesse and Bill go on and on and on about. Milwaukee’s civil society has contributed perhaps $1,000,000 in what I call pro bono genius labor. Milwaukee leaders like Rocky Marcoux and Mayor Barrett, Tony Z and Joe Davis, Nik Kovac and Willie Hines, have done their best to pave the way legally and administratively so these
    aquaponics experiments can occur. And now that the Sweet Water Foundation has gotten its legs, Milwaukee citizens are amping up their contribution. M.U., MSOE, and UWM professors have been inspired by Sweet Water and other partners in the Milwaukee urban ag experiment to launch an emerging Aquaponics R&D consortium. And people from across the nation and world are providing great value, e.g. $175,000
    MacArthur award from global competition in digital badge based learning, a $200,000 in-kind contribution from one of the Great Lakes Heartland’s premier green developer, complimenting an MPS 30 aquaponics teacher cohort involving a Growing Power Sweet Water MPS partnership.

    I owe a debt to anyone who will give of their precious time to read this long and complex story. I would have probably waited until my 80s or 90s to step away from the fray and share the glory and the shame,the fun and the pain, of the hundreds of people in Milwaukee and beyond, who have given us this great gift I call Sweet Water.

    Every city deserves a Sweet Water! And as this story unfolds, the important part Bay View has played in it will become increasingly apparent.

    Every city deserves a Sweet Water!

    Sweet Water, the Farm and the Academy,
    Is a museum alive, an evocative destination, and a science lab!

    Sweet Water is a high tech, high science,
    High craft, high art

    Center for safe and delicious food production—
    fresh fish and produce, locally sourced!

    Sweet Water is a center for hands on education
    For young and old.

    A center for attracting and energizing
    Inventors, innovators, enterprisers…active citizens!

    Civic minded celebrators!

    Transforming our great industrial cities
    Into even more inspiring organic cities.

    Every city in every country,
    In all of earth’s great civilizations and cultures…

    Deserves a Sweet Water.

    to be continued

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