Last week, Laura and I had the opportunity to visit an amazing place just down the road from us in Bay View. We thought a field trip would be a great way to celebrate our two year blogiversary!
If you haven’t toured Sweet Water Organics, it is a must-see facility. This urban farm is located in a formerly used industrial building and has been re-purposed to house and grow beautiful, fresh produce and fish for Milwaukee residents, local restaurants, and grocery stores. The Sweet Water Foundation is Sweet Water Organics’ non-profit counter part. The Sweet Water Foundation focuses its energy on educational programs, which are centered around sustainability, urban agriculture, and aquaculture in the 21st century.
When you pull up to their building on South Robinson Street, you are pleasantly surprised to see the beautiful artwork painted on the outside walls. It’s also helpful when trying to locate where to go. Ha! As you walk through their building, the walls and objects within the facility are used as a canvas to create artwork. Not only does this create a beautiful and welcoming environment, but it’s their belief that the creativity of art fosters an environment open to ideas and development. How great would that be if your workplace let you paint on their walls?!
Our tour was lead by soil systems manager and volunteer coordinator, Nick Montezon, who did an AMAZING job of sharing with us how aquaponic systems function, as well as Sweet Water Organics’ mission in urban agriculture. Nothing is better than seeing someone with such a passion for what they do.
This was the first time Laura and I have been introduced to an aquaponic system. It is a system that grows both healthy fish and vegetation. Sweet Water Organics grows fresh water fish including perch and tilapia. The vegetation within their systems includes gorgeous lettuces, fresh herbs, pepper, and tomato plants.
Aquaculture in action! The fish pools are located below the plant-tiered infrastructure. Water is constantly being recycled through this system. Fish depending on plant and plant depending on fish.
The systems work by filtering the waste-water from the fish up to the vegetation, which the plants then use for nutritional value to grow big, strong, and beautiful. The plant’s root systems are fertilized by this “fish water” and they in turn naturally clean the water, so it can be returned to the fish to thrive in. It is essentially a no-waste system and there is no soil involved…wild, right?! Talk about a truly amazing system without the use of harsh chemicals or man-made fertilizers.
Below are a few questions we had for Nick:
When did you become involved with Sweet Water Organics and what drew you to this company?
Nick had an internship with Growing Power and then became a volunteer with Sweet Water Organics, which lead into a full time job opportunity over two years ago.
What does a typical day look like for you and the Sweet Water Organics staff?
Considering that Sweet Water Organics is a fairly small organization, everyone has very different job roles that they attend to during the day such as maintenance, harvesting, and re-seeding. They come together to work on group projects to improve their farm, such as their new outdoor greenhouse system and fish house.
Don’t you just want to tear a piece off and try it?…We sure did!
It is apparent that Sweet Water Organics was inspired by Will Allen’s Growing Power. What kind of relationship do your two companies share?
Will Allen is considered the father of urban agriculture. Co-Founder and President of the Sweet Water Foundation, James Godsil had been on the board at Growing Power from 2005 until 2010. He was inspired by what he saw and brought the idea of starting Sweet Water Organics to his friend Josh Fraundorf who is the now President, Co-Founder, and Chief Financial Officer of Sweet Water Organics. With a lot of inspiration and partnerships, they brought their dream of urban agriculture to fruition and continue to have a working partnership with Growing Power.
We noticed that you have a lot of partners in the surrounding Milwaukee area, which is awesome. How do you go about planning to supply your partners with both produce and fish?
Todd Leech is the logistics consultant who is in charge of arranging produce and fish delivery to local partnerships in the Milwaukee area. As with any farming there is risk involved such as the dry weather we have had this season for traditional farming agriculture. An aquaponic system may have different problems, for instance pest control, so specific quantities are not always a guarantee. Sweet Water Organics is fortunate in that their partners want them to be successful and are well aware of the ebb and flow of both traditional agriculture and urban agriculture. They are happy to get the healthy and high quality fish and produce that Sweet Water is able to provide.
Does Sweet Water Organics have any future plans on production expansion?
With the addition of the outside greenhouses and fish house they will yield a 10- fold increase in production. At this point in time, this is their main focus and project for expansion.
We saw that Milwaukee recently received a grant for the Smarter Cities Challenge from IBM. How has Sweet Water Organics benefited from this?
The main benefit Sweet Water Organics received from this Challenge was national recognition for their accomplishments and validation on this urban agriculture infrastructure they have created. They also received a grant from the City of Milwaukee for $250,000 to create 45 new job positions over the next four years, which is great!
What part of Sweet Water Organics mission stands out to you?
Nick hopes to one day run his own urban aquaponics farm. From his experience with both Growing Power and Sweet Water Organics, he has seen the relationships develop within communities and with the healthful food the farms bear. It is a system that fosters positive relationships with co-workers, communities, and local businesses. It has been a great way to reconnect with food in a new way.
Busy as a honeybee! Their hives are kept one brick away from completion. As soon as they are nearing full, staff will add another brick to the honeybee home. You can purchase their honey, when available, in Sweet Water’s gift shop. Yum!
Urban agriculture will be on the rise as communities look towards alternatives to traditional agricultural practices. Urban agriculture not only beautifies abandoned wearhouses and lots, but it provides all community members with access to fresh, affordable fish and produce that has been grown next door. It also lends great educational opportunities as well as job creation.
With a society of busy people and processed foods on a steady rise, a real food movement is very exciting. The culture of the foods we eat needs to be brought back to our roots, no pun intended. Healthy, sustainable, local food sources are ways to reintroduce people to what food is meant to be. Not to mention, our bodies will be healthier because of it.
And our food supply…
We want to thank Sweet Water Organics for sharing their time with us and letting us pick their brains about this amazing food revolution. We look forward to checking back with them in the future!
Cheers to urban agriculture!