Solutions for Self-Reliance

How much food and income can an urban farm produce?


I’m constantly on the lookout for how to seed the growth of local production — food, energy, water, products.  One good way to seed production is to start a new business that works within the current economic environment.  The choice of whether it is a commercial, a non-profit, or a co-operative business is really based on the type of community you are building.

I suspect many of you are also looking for ways for seeding production through business creation too, since it’s a good way to launch a community resilience effort that can move forward under its own power.  Here’s a handy rule of thumb:  The more people in your community that are able to make a living through the local production of essentials, the faster your community becomes resilient.

Today’s example (I have a couple of others in the queue for future posts) is Sweet Water Organics located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  It’s a small farm that has navigated the dangerous waters of the food business to produce food in downtown Milwaukee.  It’s not perfect, but we can learn something from it.

What makes Sweet Water interesting?  

First off, it uses a method of agriculture called aquaponics.  I’ll dive into the ins and outs of this method of intensive farming and home based food production in future letters, but for today’s purposes, it’s a combination of fish farming (aquaculture) and hydroponic farming (plants grown without soil in a bath of nutrients).  The used fish water is converted into a nutrient bath for growing plants hydroponically.

This is an aquaponics system at Growing Power, an urban mini-farm also in Milwaukee. The system seen here serves as the model for Sweet Water's commercial operation.

Secondly, Sweet Water is a commercially focused farming operation.  It produces products that sell into the local marketplace.  Typically, they sell direct to commercial restaurants, catering businesses, and green grocers that want fresh, high quality produce.  These products include:

  1. Fresh Fish.  Perch, Blue Gill, and Tilapia.  The focus is on perch and blue gill since they are the highest value products.
  2. Fresh Herbs and lettuce greens. These are premium products in the greatest demand locally.

How much food and how much is it worth?

Sweet Water’s three tier aquaponics system is located in a converted crane factory, which allowed Sweet Water to pick up some grant money for the conversion.  It is on track to produce (all of the below are estimates based on my research):

  • ~10,000 pounds of fish (mostly Perch) a month in 10,000 gallon tanks.  Each tank holds 10,000 or so fish.  Estimated costs of production are ~$2.00 a pound with nearly half of that being the cost of fingerlings to stock the tanks and the rest feed.  Given local access to end use markets, prices paid are about $5-6 a pound (round, uncut, fresh) leaving a net of ~$3-4 per pound.
  • ~2000 pounds of leafy greens, lettuce to basil, a month.  Greens prices vary.  ~$3 or so per pound, for picked that morning greens sold in bulk to local restaurants is likely in the range.
  • I suspect there is a considerable opportunity to move a bit upmarket with the product into fish processing (to filet) and a local kitchen.

So, the entire operation could generate up to $46,000 a month.  This is net the costs of raising the fish, but not energy and labor.  Not a bad start.  Note that this level of performance is not possible if the production is done at a remote location and the product is frozen for delivery.

Hope this proves useful.

Hacking resilience with you,

John Robb

One final note:  Perch and Zebra Mussels

Here’s some interesting insight into how regional environmental disruption has increased Sweet Water’s potential for success:

The Friday night fish fry, with Perch and Blue Gill as the fish of choice, is part of Wisconsin tradition.  Unfortunately, that’s gotten much more expensive due to regional environmental disruption of nearby Lake Michigan, once the source of most of the fish eaten during fish fries.  Fresh water Zebra mussels from southwest Russia found their way into the lake and have decimated the once abundant perch population.

The perch population has plunged from 24.6 million in 1990 to 316 thousand in 2010.   Wow. And that drop occurred even though perch fishing on the lake has been banned since 1996.   Needless to say, this environmental disruption has driven up the price of local perch.  It’s now pricing out at $15 a pound for fillets.

I’ll talk more about this disruption dynamic in the future on how our efforts to become resilient can benefit from it.


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