Wed November 24, 2010
Around the Nation

Indoor Perch Farm Does The Work For Lake Michigan

Originally published on Wed November 24, 2010 5:00 am


SUSAN BENCE: Im Susan Bence in Milwaukee where theres another fish experiment going on - this one to reestablish a fish native to Lake Michigan. Perch is lauded for its white, flakey meat and was once a stable of the traditional Friday fish fry. But, in the 1980s perch populations plunged in Lake Michigan, and by 1996 commercial fishing was banned.

Enter three entrepreneurs who envisioned giant fish tanks inside an abandoned crane manufacturing factory. Twenty dump trucks worth of debris were removed, before deep troughs were carved into the floor. Horticultural director, Jesse Hull, points to perch swimming about the bottom of one of Sweet Water Organics' seven 10,000 gallon fish runways.

Mr. JESSE HULL (Horticultural director): Theyre producing ammonia, nitrogenous waste, right? Were bringing that up into the plant bed, this one is three tiers high.

BENCE: Lettuces and water cress peek out of long shelves stretching above the tank. The plants are raised hydroponically, so the fish water circulates up to them and the fish waste feeds the plants. The plants filter and cleanse the water which goes back into the tanks. Hull says no matter how energy-efficient Sweet Water Organics strives to be, it takes a lot of artificial light to raise healthy plants in a cavernous factory.

Mr. HULL: Were mapping out scenarios right now, where we could put green houses on the south-facing wall of the building, on the roof of the building. This eliminates any of the blocking of the light that the walls provide.

BENCE: A series of greenhouses will eventually fill the two-acre parcel next to the factory shell. One of Sweet Waters founders, Josh Frauendorf munching on freshly-plucked arugula is watching the glass panels being installed on one of the greenhouses.

Mr. JOSH FRAUENDORF (Sweet Water Organics Founder): This is kind of a new -what we think is the next wave of our expansion as well as our knowledge.

BENCE: Frauendorf, who runs a roofing company, had hoped his initial $40,000 investment would go further, but now hes thinking long term.

Mr. FRAUENDORF: Were looking at a probably $4 million project. It'll produce about 1,500 to 2000 pounds of produce a week, and thatll provide us with thirty plus systems so we can harvest 20 to 25,000 fish a month.

BENCE: One mile away, fish biologist Fred Binkowski is raising perch by the thousands in his highly controlled, Great Lakes Water Institute lab. He stocks Sweet Water Organics with six-month-old perch he raises here.

Mr. FRED BINKOWSKI (Fish biologist): We supply fingerlings but only as part of a cooperative research effort. That gives me the opportunity to take what we have going on here in a research lab and put it into a commercial site.

BENCE: Binkowski thinks Sweet Water Organics will benefit not only from his healthy fingerlings, but because of its strategic location.

Mr. BINKOWSKI: Its being placed at the center of consumer demand. You dont have to be transporting fish three, four hundred miles. And theres an available job force there, especially today, with our unemployment rate being close to 10 percent.

BENCE: Theres not much in the realm of aquaponics that escapes Charlie Prices attention. He runs an aquaponics nonprofit in the U.K. and says every possible collaboration, even with something happening in an old warehouse in Milwaukee, should be encouraged.

Mr. CHARLIE PRICE (Manager, aquaponics nonprofit in U.K.): By 2030, its been stated, we need to provide 50 percent more food and 50 percent more energy. Aquaponics has the potential to address that.

BENCE: Sweet Water Organics is due to sell its first batch of perch in early January. Its now the largest urban aquaponics center in the country and is advising other fledgling indoor fish vegetable farm projects, nationwide.

For NPR News, Im Susan Bence in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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