Wisconsin’s Future Farm Packs Sustainable Punch with Cow Powered Aquaponics Operation
February 1, 2012 | Jessica Vernabe
The company’s operations take place out of a 27,000-square-foot greenhouse in Baldwin, Wisc., which houses fish tanks and growing bays that contain herbs and vegetables. Tubes run back and forth between the tanks and growing bays, recirculating water, otherwise known as effluent.
(The water, which carries the waste from the tilapia and catfish, is transferred to the growing bays and becomes natural nutrients that are absorbed by the plants’ roots. The plants, in turn, serve as a sort of filter for the water, purifying the water that is circulated back to the fish tanks. This method—the combination of aquaculture and hydroponics—is called aquaponics.)
The result is about 8,000 pounds of fish and about 500,000 plants, which are sold in the local region, says Steve Meyer, co-owner and director of operations for Future Farm.
But here comes the interesting part—this is done sustainably with the help of about 2,600 cows.
Meyer and Future Farm’s other owner and director, John Vrieze, use manure and water waste from Vrieze’s two dairy farms to provide heat for the greenhouse. They do this with an anaerobic digester, which has a tank that can hold about 21 days’ worth of manure at a time, Vrieze said. This is how it works: manure and wastewater are heated at a high temperature, which creates a biogas that contains about 60 percent methane. That gas is then piped to a boiler, and from there, heat is generated. An additional byproduct of the process is fertilizer, which is sold and reused on the two dairy farms.
As a result of this manure separation process, Future Farm is able to save about $50,000 a year in heating bills and cut down on its use of fossil fuels, the owners say.
Sustainability considerations also factor into Future Farm’s decision to use aquaponic growing methods, which enables the farm to use much less water than a traditional lettuce grower, said Meyer. “A typical head of lettuce grown in Arizona or California would take about 22 gallons of water in order to grow that head of lettuce,” he said. “It takes about four (at Future Farm), so it’s also good from a water consumption standpoint since we don’t dump water. We just continually recycle it.”
The concept for Future Farm arose out of Vrieze’s desire to lessen the environmental impact of his farming operations. Vrieze, whose grandfather started Baldwin Farm with about 18 cows in 1906, served on the governor’s task force for climate change in Wisconsin a few years ago.
“We were trying to figure out (the question) ‘How do we drop the carbon footprint on the dairy products that we produce?’” Vrieze said.
Vrieze said he had been working with a company that put anaerobic digesters on both of his farms in 2005 and 2006. The plan was to use the digester to create natural gas, but the company he was working with eventually dissolved before they could complete the process, he said.
“So we had the digesters and just had to figure out how to make use of the energy they were producing,” Vreize said. “That’s kind of what led us to the greenhouse idea.”
In 2007, Vrieze reached out to Meyer, a manufacturing engineer from his church who had just sold his business. Vrieze invited him over to see his anaerobic digester and to help figure out how they could turn it into a business opportunity. (Electricity generation was still inefficient and not cost-effective at the time, the owners said.) Meyer had been creating biodiesel for his vehicles and was also reading about how to make oil from algae.
From there, the new business partners built a photobioreactor to grow a strain of algae. After receiving a suggestion from an Ecogenics Research Center researcher in Tennessee who was working with them on their algae project, Vrieze and Meyer decided to raise tilapia fish since they had access to a lot of heat and warm water, which the tilapia require. They soon learned that they could raise the fish in concert with hydroponic plants using the same water without a lot of chemical fertilizer.
The business partners devised a plan to build a greenhouse to the appropriate specifications to match the amount of energy the duo’s equipment could sustain. Construction started in 2007 and was completed in 2009, Meyer said. The greenhouse was operating by January 2010.
Future Farm now sells its products to its local region, generally staying within a 60-mile radius of its Baldwin facility, Vrieze said. The company sells to online farmer’s market customers, local food co-ops and local restaurants. It now also sells its products wholesale to larger retailers such as Whole Foods Market and Sysco. Meyer estimates the company’s sales have doubled from 2010 to 2011, and are expected to double again in 2012.
Phillip Becht, operations manager at Birchwood Café, said the Minneapolis Restaurant orders a mixture of greens from Future Farm and that he appreciates the farm’s great product selection.
“The cool thing is that we can get lettuce (in the winter) that isn’t from California,” he said, adding that the restaurant tries to source its ingredients locally as much as possible. “If we want to eat green things in the winter here, it’s a really great way to do it and maybe one of the only real sustainable ways.”
In 2011, Future Farm generated between $500,000 and $1 million in revenue and just about broke even, Meyer said. He added that he expects the business to become profitable within the next year, and they hope to start franchising the business within the next five years.
Meyer said he expects to see future growth in the aquaponics food market—especially the sustainable kind.
“People are starting to learn that it’s important where their food comes from, and as people are learning that, what we’re doing will become more and more important,” Meyer said. “We are probably about five years ahead of the curve right now.”
Ron Johnson, an aquaculture outreach specialist for University of Wisconsin Extension and past president of the Wisconsin Aquaculture Association, agrees that the emerging market is growing. Johnson, who has provided free consultation services to Future Farm through the university’s extension program, said that hydroponics has been around for the past two to three decades. The use of aquaculture to grow fish dates back to Incan and the Aztec practices, though it has been reemerging very intensely over the past 10 to 15 years, he said. However, he noted that it is only over the past five to seven years that larger-scale aquaponics companies have been entering the scene.
“We see the industry moving from backyard and research type systems into full economics and full-scale production,” Johnson said.
He said he believes Future Farm probably has the largest aquaponics facility in Wisconsin—a state that is known for having a high synergy in hydroponic and aquaponic operations—and the business is particularly unique because of its green heating methods.
“He (Meyer) is really a leader in the industry in how to take new technologies and make them more sustainable and profitable,” Johnson said.