Startup Profile: Milwaukee-based Aquaponic Farm Thrives in Converted Industrial Space
September 22, 2011 | Marie DeMange
In 2008, Josh Fraundor and Jim Godsil co-founded Sweet Water Organics, a for-profit organic fish and vegetable farm built inside a former crane manufacturing building. Located in the Bay View area of Milwaukee, this urban agriculture business uses a sustainable aquaponics system to raise approximately 35,000 Perch and 20,000 Tilapia, and produce a variety of leafy greens. Along with its aquaponics system, Sweet Water has integrated an outdoor greenhouse operation to provide additional organic produce to the local market.
Sweet Water Aquaponics
The term aquaponics is a blended derivation of the terms aquaculture and hydroponic. In aquaponics systems, the growing of fish is tied intrinsically to the growth of plants.
Sweet Water’s aquaponic system was inspired by the three-tiered, bio-intensive, simulated wetland developed by Growing Power founder, Will Allen.
At the Sweet Water Organics facility, in-ground fish tanks hold the perch and tilapia. With the use of a pump system, the water from the tanks is constantly recirculated from fish tank to plant beds, back to fish tank.
First the fish waste solids from the tank are separated out through a sponge-like bio-organic filter, then the waste water flows beneath the plant beds and is filtered by the the roots of the vegetables. The waste water acts as a natural fertilizer to the plants. The filtered water is recirculated back into fish tanks. The farm uses a raft system so that the edible portion of the plants does not come into contact with the waste water. The seeds are planted in compostable biodegradable plugs, which are placed into a raft that floats on top of the beds.
“One of the major rewards, when you figure out how to do it right, is how much less water you’re using to actually grow produce. It’s a contained system, so you can grow crops using 95% less water than traditional agriculture,” explains Sales Manager, Todd Leech.
Products and Marketing
Sweet Water Organics’ products runs the gamut from lettuce, basil, watercress, tomatoes and peppers to chard, spinach, wheatgrass, sprouts, and, of course, tilapia and perch.
The majority of the company’s revenue comes from wholesale distribution to independent local restaurants, co-ops and grocery stores. Sweet Water also sells its produce and fish through its own retail store and directly at farmers’ markets.
The company is doing well and Leech says that demand for Sweet Water Organics products currently exceeds the company’s production capacity.
Growth and Experimentation
Sweet Water has it’s eye on creating spaces specifically designed for aquaponics systems; that is, new buildings built from the ground up that will not require the troubleshooting necessary to convert existing industrial space that was not intended for agricultural usage.
In the future, the company will be experimenting with live bio-filtration systems, which would allow it to farm prawns and mussels. The prawns and mussels would in turn not only live off the waste that the fish in the system produce, but also help to filter the water and provide another source of protein to market and sell to the Milwaukee community.
Sweet Water Organics is also working on developing a clean compost product for the city of Milwaukee. The company currently partners with business throughout the city to collect thousands of pounds of compostable waste for processing such as sawdust, wood chips, post-consumer residual coffee grounds, and produce.
Sweet Water Organics hopes to create other businesses in this country and around the world to establish and drive the development of sustainable agricultural practices that will allow urban agriculture to flourish regardless of environmental barriers such as water crises or toxic soil.
“The largest hurdle for industrial agriculture is poisoned land,” remarks Leech. ”If we can’t revitalize the land, we’ve got to be able to work on top of or around the land.”
“What we’re trying to do aside from growing good food is to show that these kinds of new methods and new ways of growing in urban landscapes don’t have to fall in the charity bed, don’t have to live on government grants – that they can be developed, for-profit businesses, job creators and innovation incubators.”