Monday, March 7, 2011
Fish, Vegetables, and Milwaukee’s Coming Good Boom: Sweet Water Organics
Tanks filled with lake perch and tilapia and trays of leafy plants above them in an old factory building two short miles to the south of Milwaukee’s downtown in the newly popular Bay View neighborhood could well be one of the city’s future engines of economic and environmental progress. It’s hard to imagine that economic advance in an old industrial city could ever be traced to ordinary commodities such as vegetables and fish, but Sweet Water Organics may just prove this to be the case. Founded in 2009, Sweet Water currently raises some 55,000 yellow perch and tilapia in raceways embedded in the concrete floor of an aging but spacious factory building located in Milwaukee’s south side industrial belt. Instead of exploiting natural habitats for good things to eat, Sweet Water leaves nature alone and creates an aquatic environment that mimics a wetland in a highly compact urban space to produce fish and vegetables for human consumption. The production cycle is amazing in its simplicity. Fish wastes provide nutrients for plants, and plants in turn cleanse the water for the fish. Water ladened with fish wastes is pumped from the raceways up to double deck beds where it flows across pea gravel containing bacteria that break down ammonia and other wastes into nitrates that plants can use for food. The nutrient-rich water is pumped up to a middle bed of watercress plants for additional filtering and then to a top deck where it fertilizes a variety of potted herbs, sprouts, and vegetables. The cleansed water then flows back down to the fish tanks. The only inputs into the system currently are commercial fish food and energy for pumps, heating, and grow lights which supplement natural lighting from clearstory windows. In a secondary cycle, composting of food wastes gathered from local businesses creates both a mineral-rich plant growing medium as well as worms that will eventually replace the commercial fish food now in use. The composting system may also eventually provide heat for the fish tanks reducing the need for external energy inputs once technical problems are ironed out.
Sweet Water Organics offers a fascinating model for fostering a business expansion in Milwaukee of a new kind—a good economic boom that will not only bring economic prosperity in its wake but will help resolve environmental ills as well. A coming economy-wide good boom, as I have argued this blog, will be built on a turn to compact living and clean energy fostered by the need to solve the problem of global warming. As things stand, prices today for gasoline, coal, and other fossil fuels don’t account for the environmental costs of climate change, and reversing climatic warming will require correcting this error by placing a real cost on greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. As a consequence of doing so, fossil fuel prices will rise, giving us a strong incentive for turning to green energy and spatially compact forms of living that not only reduce energy consumption, but leave more space on the planet available for nature. Sweet Water, through its innovative scheme of production, is helping us realize both of these goals, as we will now explain.
Expanding nature’s space follows from the Sweet Water’s quest to mimic natural processes in the design of its system for producing fish and vegetables. Raising fish in a building that would otherwise stand empty substitutes for the commercial extraction of fish from the wild and helps to abate further threats to already over-exploited global fish populations. In essence, Sweet Water’s human created ecosystem is being substituted for the exploitation of a natural one leaving more undisturbed space for nature. Sweat Waters cultivation of vegetables in high-rise tiers of planters above its fish tanks also constrains human expansion into the natural world. Anyone who has ever spent much time in California’s valley landscapes knows how much space vegetable production normally requires. In these places for as far as the eye can see land is devoted to what ends up on our dinner plate. If you dine at a Milwaukee restaurant such as the historic Third Ward’s Coquette Cafe, or if you buy your produce at Outpost Natural Foods Coop, chances are your salad greens will have come from nearby Sweet Water where next to no land at all is needed for their growth. Less land in agriculture translates into more land for nature.
Mimicking natural cycles in a spatially compact space, such as Sweet Water’s old factory building, also helps our global quest to reduce energy consumption and lessen greenhouse gas emissions. The norm in conventional industrial vegetable cultivation in such places as California and Florida is the heavy usage of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, all of which require huge amounts of fossil fuels to produce. One sees none of this around Sweet Water Organics. The act of industrial vegetable cultivation itself requires the use of fossil fuel powered tractors and harvesters, and the shipping of produce to market from far afield itself absorbs substantial amounts of energy. This is avoided at Sweet Water where cultivation is an act of human labor and shipping both vegetables and fish to market is a highly local affair. The norm these days for fish caught on the high seas is to air freight them from all corners of the earth to urban markets, a step which is avoided by Sweet Water’s location in close proximity to its customers. The need for heat and grow lights constitute the only energy inputs Sweet Water requires which eventually can be supplied from local solar installations or from Wisconsin’s abundant wind energy. Sweet Water produces food for local consumption using local resources and the only significant input that comes from afar is commercial fish feed which compost-produced worms can eventually curtail.
Sweet Water’s decision to locate in older urban neighborhood reinforces a recent increase in the popularity of living at higher densities in older central cities like Milwaukee. The bloom is off suburban living and young and old alike are looking to the city for a more interesting place to live. In her classic work, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs sets out the features that defines successful urban neighborhoods—high density, a diversity of businesses and residential dwellings in close proximity, a vibrant street life, and a pedestrian friendly street layout. Neighborhoods with these characteristics make it possible for people to work, reside, and recreate all within a walkable area. The presence of people on the streets throughout the day going to work or school, shopping, or drinking an espresso in a sidewalk cafe creates a lively environment of the kind especially attractive to urban dwellers. Bay View has such features and the presence of Sweet Water benefits the neighborhood by creating employment opportunities within easy reach of affordable and interesting housing. Compact living in a neighborhood like Bay View is not only enjoyable, but has the special value of limiting the need to consume fossil fuel energy for getting around in carrying out the tasks and pleasures of everyday life.
Economists like to say “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” They mean by this that whenever we spend resources on one activity, we can’t put those resources to use doing something else. Everything we decide to do has a cost in the form of a lost opportunity. In its use of an unemployed building that would have otherwise stood empty, Sweet Water is a living refutation of the “no free lunch doctrine.” Putting old industrial building to a new use is in effect a spatial free lunch. By doing this, we don’t need to expand outward into green spaces surrounding a city taking up more land and we don’t need to use up scarce natural resources for new construction. Sweet Water is also creating employment opportunities in a community with an ample supply of high quality housing and in area where unemployed workers need jobs. Putting the unemployed to work also constitutes a free lunch given their lack of alternative options for earning a living. Creating jobs within the city’s boundaries has the bonus of taking pressure off of outward suburban expansion and the increased use of space and energy that goes with it.
The continuation of all these benefits to the environment and the local community from Sweet Water of course depends on its ultimate success. The hope of its founders is to be profitably producing and marketing upwards of 500,000 pounds of perch annually and 1,000 pounds of produce a week in a few years, employing as many as 40 workers in the Milwaukee area at multiple sites, a substantial expansion from Sweet Water’s current six employees. Milwaukee is already a mini-Silicon Valley for aquaponics pioneered by Growing Power, a nonprofit organization with the purpose of bringing good food to Milwaukee’s inner city led by MacArthur Foundation Fellow, Will Allen. Sweet Water’s essential goal is to prove that Growing Power’s methods can be the basis for profitable business expansion in the Milwaukee area. The future is always uncertain, but one can easily imagine that a new kind of urban agriculture could be an essential engine of a future “good boom” in Milwaukee.