Chapter Two- Sweet Water Organics

On Sunday I dragged my whole family to a tour of Sweet Water Organics (SWO) in Bay View. I first heard about it on Radio Milwaukee, and got interested in their method of urban agriculture, selling fish and produce through a Will Allen-inspired aquaponics system.  Sounds cool, yeah?  My guess is that if you have heard anything about Milwaukee’s budding culture of green technology then you probably have heard of both Will Allen and SWO.  I’ve wondered for a while if they are worth the hype.  I’d put off taking the $5 tour forever, and decided this was the day to do it.  

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Tours are on Fridays and Sundays, and kids under 10 get in free. Today’s tour included probably 30 people.  Pretty good turnout, I think.  We arrived cold and wet from the rain, and late (as usual, we’re late for everything!). Let me say that I’m only recalling about 25% of the information our tour guide gave us.  Tending to three kids does not lend well to listening.

The first part of the tour went through the large warehouse, which at one time held the aquaponics system (10,000 square feet of space to keep heated and lit).  Aquaponics is a type of farming where fish and plants are grown together, in a re-circulating system without soil.  The original thought from SWO’s founders was that the profitability of the system would come from the sale of fish.  Apparently, though, they found that in this system (Sweet Water Organics 1.0) they needed more plants than they anticipated, and had to move things around.

Enter Sweet Water Organics 2.0.  They’ve scaled back how many fish they have (now housed in the Fish House), and found a more efficient way to grow the plants outside in Aqua Gardens.  Lettuce production was at a yield of 150 lbs/week in the old warehouse.  Now, in the Aqua Gardens, they expect to produce 200 lbs/week.  And these greenhouses are only 1,200 square feet, lit by natural sunlight only.  The plants grow on styrofoam sheets.  Their roots grow down through holes in the styrofoam into tanks of water, which are fertilized by the fish waste.

While the business of SWO is farming, there is a notable community outreach program.  SWO works with local schools and organizations to educate kids on the advantages and techniques associated with Aquaponics.  There are even programs in schools where kids are growing their own lettuces and selling them to restaurants and grocery stores.  If I had been listening instead of wrangling children, I could tell you what school I’m talking about.

Considering it was really cold and we were pretty wet from walking outside, the kids did well.  I think they liked it, actually.

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I did a little research on aquaponics after the visit, and it is definitely not without its detractors.  But the fact is that this is a small privately run business that is trying to be innovative.  In all, it left me feeling proud of this city.  Something forward-thinking and out of the ordinary.  I’d recommend the tour.

  Sweet Water Organics- 1.0 SweetWater16 SweetWater10 SweetWater5 SweetWater9 SweetWater8 SweetWater1 Sweet Water Organics Sweet Water Organics- 2.0

 

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