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The Inside Scoop on Urban Agriculture with Sweet Water Organics

12 Aug

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.

Aquaponic love.


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!


Refrigerator Dills

27 Jul

We finally got an excellent crop of little cucumbers this year…perfect for pickling! Nic and I are serious dill pickle fans, so last year we thought it would be a great idea to grow little cukes and do some pickling. Want to know how many cucumbers grew on our vines? Three. What the heck? But we were totally determined to have dill pickles, so we tried to pickle three of them. It totally bombed. Ugh.

So here we are this year with a garden full of healthy looking baby cukes and two people ready to take. It. On. Again. We got our recipe from our friend Ruth, whose mom is a total food preservation guru. Ma Burhop is a serious cook-from-scratch kind of lady. Yearly canning of homemade salsa and other goodies is a tradition in their household. So, thank you to the Burhop family for this recipe!

Refrigerator Dills

Makes 2 gallons of pickles

3 cups cold vinegar

12 cups cold water

½ cup canning salt

1 or 2 cloves of garlic, quartered

¼ – ½ tsp powdered alum (I found this at our local Sendik’s)

Fresh dill or 4 Tbsp dill seed

Combine all of the ingredients with rinsed pickles in a clean jar.

Set on your basement floor, preferably a cement one, for 3 days.

Move pickle jar to the fridge for 3-4 months. The pickles will take on their best flavor after about 3 weeks.

You don’t need to have a certain amount of pickles to use this recipe. Our garden happened to produce enough pickles ready to fill two 1 gallon containers. We piled the pickles in and poured the liquid mixture in to fill the containers and cover the pickles. As for the dill, we used fresh dill. You’ve got to; it’s that time of year for the fresh stuff. The farmers’ market is overflowing with it. It’s hard to describe how much we used, but I would say we used about 1 1/2 cups worth of it. Use more or less depending on how dilly you want this to turn out.

You know I didn’t have the will power to wait 3 weeks before taking a taste of these pickles. I am in love. After just 4 days, our little cukes took on the most wonderful dilly and salty taste. They definitely taste “pickled” but have maintained their crunchy freshness. I foresee the perfect side to any type of summer sandwich or accompaniment to our homemade Bloody Mary’s. These pickles can be enjoyed eaten whole, gripping it state fair style, or my preference, cut into quarters lengthwise, deli style. Yum.

What? You’re not growing pickles in your garden this year? What’s wrong with you? Just kidding! If you don’t have your own pickle patch or your crop was seriously as sad as ours was last year, hit up the stands at your local farmers’ markets. Those little baby cukes need a home and might be a type of produce that you would normally over look. You’ll be thanking yourself for making these refrigerator dills when it’s mid-November and you are crunching on a homemade pickle spear along side a delish BLT sandwich. Om nom nom…

Baby Steps

20 Jul

Dang you, Pinterest. You got me again with another project.

Who doesn’t love those little handprint ornaments that you make around Christmas time? We made one for Lyla when she was about 4 months old and I can’t wait to pull it out next year to see how much she has grown. My sweet little princess is growing like a weed!

I saw a great idea on Pinterest to set your kid’s footprints in a stepping stone each year. We spend a lot of time outdoors and once late summer hits, the garden is where it’s at. It’s the perfect idea to create some attractive stepping stones that capture the memory of my little girl’s tiny baby feet. Nic did a great job of finding random “stepping stones” around the property and in our garage when we moved in to make it easier to walk around garden to weed and pick our produce. But what’s in the garden right now for stepping stones isn’t exactly aesthetically pleasing…

Click here to view step by step instructions on how to make a stepping stone for your own garden. No need for me to reinvent the wheel when the link provides great instructions.

Nic purchased a cement stone mold from our local hardware store from a dollar or two and it literally took him, like, two minutes to whip up the cement. Working with cement sounded intimidating and hard. Not at all. Super easy. We let it harden for a few minutes to get a less soupy consistency of the cement. I wish I would have followed the instructions more closely and coated Lyla’s feet with olive oil. I think it would have produced more precise looking footprints in the cement. Lesson learned. We also weren’t as careful about getting a super smooth surface pre-foot printing. Maybe next time I’ll smooth it out a little better, but I guess what we got was a not-so-perfect, rustic-y looking finish on the stepping stone. I like it.

After we smooshed Lyla’s feet in the cement (she was not a happy camper for this part), I pressed in the green stones around the perimeter and the tiny stones for the year 2012. Once we have multiple bambinos I’ll need to find a space to put their name too. The instructions don’t mention this, but Nic thought it would be a good idea to put a couple of coats of cement sealer on the stone once it dried. We will be keeping these little guys outside (maybe bringing them in during the winter?) and I want them to stay beautiful forever and ever and ever.

I think once our kids get older, we will let them choose how they want to decorate their stepping stone each year. There were so many options of stones and tiles and things at the craft store. It will be fun to see what they choose to decorate with each year and how it changes as they get older. I can only imagine what I would have chosen at age 9…

What projects do you do with your kids to create special memories?

One Dolla Make your Herbs Holla

28 Jun

So, I had a little mix-up with my herbs. About a month ago when I planted them in two pots outside, I was a little rushed and I never marked which herbs were planted in which area of the pot. I thought, surely I would remember exactly where each were planted. Wrong. I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday. The other problem was that only five out of the eight herbs even sprouted. So here I am stooped next to my pots taste testing herbs while I’m simultaneously comparing google images from my iPhone to the baby herbs that are sprouting in my pots. After tasting a couple of weeds that I thought were herbs…I figured out which I needed to replant and did just that.

To prevent this predicament from happening again, I thought the best solution was to create some really cute plant markers for my herbs. I’ve used Popsicle sticks before but that wasn’t very attractive. The best solution to figuring out any type of creative project is to turn to Pinterest.

I found a picture of what I wanted to recreate and then kind of did my own thing. I loved the look of these spoons, but didn’t have the patience to wait for a metal stamping kit. I also saw a picture of something that looks very similar to what I made, but I’m sure the person who made them drew their own little sketches of herbs. No one wants to lay eyes on anything that I draw. I’m the worst. So, I turned to google images for a little help in that department and printed images for the herbs I wanted to make markers for.

I picked up 10 spoons at Goodwill for 10 cents a piece. Score! I used Mod Podge to stick the paper onto the spoons and let them dry over night. Then I dipped the spoons into a water based Polycrylic to seal the deal. These babies are going to be holding down the herb fort outside in the wind and rain, so they have to be able to handle some serious stuff. For good measure, I let them dry for about an hour and then dipped them a second time. This was literally a one dollar project, minus the teensy bit of Mod Podge and sealer which we already had purchased for a different project.

I love how they turned out! Some are a bit hard to read because of the writing on the pictures and how I printed them, so when I do this again I think I will use a fine point Sharpie to make the name of the herb easier to read. I would also look for iced tea spoons with long handles. I think they would stick up higher from herbs that grow extra high. Just an idea.

I always love a new way to spruce up our garden and this way we can keep things a little bit more organized! What do you use to mark herbs in your garden?