Ag’s next wave

More businesses turn to aquaponics, hydroponics

Posted on May 30, 2019 :: Insight Insider
Sharon Verbeten
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

The next frontier in agriculture isn’t in a farm field; it’s in water.

Whether it’s hydroponics or aquaponics, a growing number of businesses are trying out this new way of producing food, whether it’s to provide people with more locally sourced food, cultivate food more sustainably or offer an answer to helping feed the world’s growing population.

“By 2050, there are going to be 3 billion more people on the planet, and they require cropland the size of Brazil to feed them,” says Alex Tyink, president of Fork Farms in Appleton. “It’s a massive global issue.”

Using hydroponics or aquaponics to grow produce can help solve the problem. In hydroponics, plants are grown without soil using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent. In aquaponics, the waste produced by farmed fish or other aquatic animals supplies nutrients for plants grown hydroponically. Those plants, in turn, purify the water.

It’s unclear just how many companies in northeast and east central Wisconsin are investing in hydroponics and aquaponics, but experts agree it is a growing trend.

Traditionally, national figures were not kept on the topic. Hydroponics and aquaponics were not previously included in the National Agriculture Statistics Service, but that has now changed, says Donna Gilson, communications specialist, Agricultural Resource Management Division, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

“The 2018 farm bill directs the USDA to conduct a census of aquaponics and hydroponic operations as part of an effort to support urban agriculture,” she says.

Farmers-market fresh

Whether it’s been large-scale fruit and vegetable recalls or a change in shoppers’ attitudes, there’s increased interest in farm-fresh produce, with consumers wanting to know where their food comes from.

Once the site of a country club, Riverview Gardens in Appleton repurposed a former swimming pool and locker rooms and converted them into a hydroponic greenhouse where lettuce, herbs and tomatoes are grown year-round. Riverview also provides job training and uses its hydroponics area and ServiceWorks job training program to serve veterans and others who need a quieter environment due to post-traumatic stress disorder or other issues. Its products are sold mainly at The Free Market in Appleton and Festival Foods grocery stores.

One area farm that’s a regular at farmers markets is Ledgeview Gardens in De Pere, which produces its crops using hydroponics. The farm is well known at local markets for its ripe red tomatoes, available even when the crop isn’t in season here.

While those farms grow the food themselves using hydroponics, Fork Farms takes it to the next level. The business creates modular, vertical hydroponic farming systems that allow schools, organizations, individuals and food pantries to grow food themselves.

Saving space and producing clean produce are just a few benefits hydroponics offers on a small scale, Tyink says. 

“We think our technology can be a true conduit for social change,” he says. “We envision a future with a decentralized food system that puts the power of production into the hands of people.”

And that’s just what it is doing. The business partners with Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin to deliver its farming systems to providers in the community.

Tyink, a trained opera singer, became interested in urban agriculture when he was in New York building rooftop farms for schools. So, what started as a passion and a hobby ended up being life changing. “I got a lot happier when I started eating better,” he says.

When he finally landed on an idea that was patentable, Tyink moved home to the Appleton area and launched Fork Farms. He met his co-founders in 2015 and started to field test the model of the unit for consumers.

“The idea was we wanted to put it in schools and food programs,” Tyink says. “This area was perfect for it. We feel like we have the right product at the right time.”

Fork Farms now has more than 150 indoor farm installations in six states and has partnered with many school districts, including Menasha, Winneconne, Appleton and Milwaukee.

“Once you show people what you have, they understand,” Tyink says.

Tyink sees hydroponics as part of a solution to a “systemic problem.”

“Our food culture is based on fast foods … food right now is this very hands-off entity; it’s a little backwards. The more that we’ve gotten people invested in where their food is coming from … they have to get involved,” he says. “It comes down to survival. We need to start designing solutions. At the end of the day, we learned which solutions drive the outcomes and simplified the process.”

Fish swim in

Hydroponic systems are not the only way to grow produce outside of soil. Aquaponics adds fish to the equation. The waste produced by the fish provides nutrients to hydroponically grown plants.

Since the mid-1990s, Nelson & Pade, in Montello in Marquette County, has focused solely on aquaponics, which combines raising fish in tanks with soilless plant culture — so it’s a means of providing both edible plants and protein. Unlike traditional agriculture, aquaponics uses one-sixth of the water to sustainably grow eight times more food per acre, without pesticides or fertilizer. The company creates aquaponics systems and helps buyers learn how to use them.

“In the 1980s, hydroponics was a pretty new industry,” says Rebecca Nelson, co-founder and president of Nelson & Pade.

Nelson, who provides curriculum and training on aquaponics, is a lifelong supporter of sustainable agriculture. Last year, U.S. Business News honored her as Aquaponics Systems Retailer of the Year. It also received two 2018 aquaponics honors at the Clean Energy Awards.

“Aquaponics is growing at a very fast rate,” Nelson says. “We continue to see increased interest every year. People are more aware of the farm-to-table movement and just in general more aware of the benefits of the technology.”

Nelson notes more consumers are looking at what produce is available to them and are concerned about pesticides, food safety and foodborne illnesses. Aquaponic farming allows users to control the inputs.

“It can be used to sustainably raise fresh fish and vegetables for a family, to feed a village or to generate profit in a commercial farming venture, year-round, in any climate,” says Nelson, who wrote the book, “Aquaponic Food Production.” 

Nelson & Pade has customers in 28 countries, and it works locally to educate schools and universities with its system, which is a “perfect fit for STEM education,” Nelson says.

While Nelson & Pade is an established business, The Farmory, which is housed in an old military training armory in downtown Green Bay, is ramping up. A self-sustaining, year-round indoor agriculture center, The Farmory is a project of the nonprofit Urban Partnership Community Development Corp.

The 20,000-square-foot Farmory uses aquaponics to grow food, and as part of this model, it’s focused on developing what will be the state’s first and only bio-secure (in a controlled environment) yellow perch hatchery, which it is running in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Raising the perch in a controlled environment is “an important value our hatchery will bring,” says Claire Thompson, executive director of The Farmory. “Farmers can buy our fish already feed trained.”

Year-round, and off season, they will spawn matured yellow perch and grow the eggs into fingerlings, some of which will then find their way into aquaponics systems and be grown to market size.

“There are budding aquaponics farmers looking for other species,” Thompson says. “Our goal is to produce 500,000 fingerlings per year. About 40,000 of them would be placed into our own aquaponics farm.”

While few people would dispute that traditional farming is struggling, teaching new generations these sustainable alternatives doesn’t come without challenges. “Sometimes, we’re battling misinformation,” Nelson says. 

But Tyink doesn’t see hydroponic gardening as a mere trend, but rather a workable long-term solution.

“How do you feed people in this evolving landscape?” he says. “The only way we can feed that number of people is through technology.”

Starting in schools

Local schools are learning the ways of hydroponics and aquaponics and reaping the healthy rewards.

The Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region recently gave a $4,245 grant from its Environmental Stewardship Fund to students in the Weyauwega-Fremont School District. Students are required to take at least one agriculture class between sixth and 12th grades. Thanks to the grant, one of the choices will now be aquaculture.

The grant will pay most of the cost of equipment and supplies needed to operate the indoor farm, which will grow vegetables for the school’s hot lunch program. The aquaponics system, manufactured by Nelson & Pade in Montello, will use water with nutrients added to grow eight times more food per acre than they could planting in a farm field.

Not only do these systems help grow food, they also help teach science and biology concepts. Jason Stellmacher, a high school science teacher with the Appleton Area School District, works with a system developed by Fork Farms in Menasha.

“It is difficult to engage students meaningfully with science concepts,” he says. “It is also a challenge to find activities that can be used across science disciplines or across curricular areas. But growing food in the classroom is one activity that can do these things and more.”

With hydroponics, teachers can facilitate hands-on learning within the walls of the classroom year-round without the issues associated with soil, weather and lighting limitations, Stellmacher says.

“Now, we are able to teach everything from the nitrogen cycle to the life cycle of plants to the benefits of healthy eating with one system,” he says. “Issues of food safety, local food sourcing, sustainable agriculture and food deserts come naturally with this system.”

The Menasha Joint School District just ordered more Fork Farms systems, bringing it to a total of 18. “I think they will be the first school district in the country to grow their own salad greens,” says Fork Farms President Alex Tyink.

The systems produce food, teach science and — as one Menasha teacher noted — spark enthusiasm from the students.

“The growing experience in the classroom has been very positive … there is an enthusiasm behind growing something in the classroom. The students who have been helping with the process have a pride when talking to other students about being the hydroponic grower,” says Katie Grabner, a science teacher at Maplewood Middle School in Menasha.