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Milwaukee’s Critical 21st Century Industry

Will Allen

Will Allen

Although it may not be nice to fool Mother Nature, Rebecca Nelson and John Pade, founders of Nelson & Pade, Inc., in Montello, have learned that it is nice to imitate one of her grand designs: aquaponics. This sustainable process—feeding fish whose waste nourishes plants that clean the water for the fish—occurs naturally in healthy ponds and streams and is essential to life on Earth.

The man-made version of aquaponics is a food production system that combines aquaculture—raising fish or other aquatic animals—with hydroponics—cultivating plants in water. While the husband and wife team, authors of Aquaponic Food Production, were early pioneers in combining design theories of hydroponics with aquaculture and testing them in greenhouses in 1992, they were not the first to borrow the clever idea from Mother Nature. Humans first put the intricate sequence to work in China 1,500 years ago, and later, the Incas of Peru used it to raise fresh fish and super-rich, high-quality produce.

A Symbiotic Eco-System

Modern aquaponics recycles water, a precious resource. Fish give off carbon dioxide (CO2) as they breathe. Plants take in CO2, strip the carbon to build their leaves and then release the remaining oxygen molecules. The oxygen-rich air is filtered and then blown into the water for the fish to recycle. In this symbiotic mini eco-system, wastes in one facet of the system are utilized as a resource in another. “Aquaponics is the ideal answer to a fish farmer’s problem of disposing of nutrient-rich water and a hydroponic grower’s need for nutrient-rich water,” enthuses Nelson.

In hydroponics, plants are grown without soil; roots are immersed in a nutrient-rich solution, or the solution continually flows over the roots. “We started in hydroponics in the mid-1980s, but weren’t fond of the idea that we had to use a manufactured nutrient solution,” says Nelson, who is also editor of the quarterly Aquaponics Journal. Rebecca Nelson sharing aquaponic lettuce with attendees

Boosting Food Production

The interest in growing local food, the popularity of farmers’ markets and the potential for raising a significant amount of food in a space of less than half an acre make aquaponics a very attractive business. “Commercially, aquaponics is in its infancy; however, as the technology develops and is refined, it has the potential to be a more efficient and space-saving method of growing fish, vegetables and herbs,” advises Nelson as she grazes through her greenhouse, picking nutrient-dense tomatoes, peppers and radishes. After adding a few beets and some fancy lettuce, Swiss chard and bok choy, Nelson has gathered the equivalent of a healthy salad. “The veggies don’t get any fresher, and there are no pesticides or herbicides to worry about and no dirt to wash off—just pluck and eat,” quips Nelson, adding that there is almost no limit to what can be grown in a controlled environment using aquaponics.

More than 1,000 individuals from around the world have experienced Nelson and Pade’s aquaponics workshops. “They are attended by everyone from school teachers to hobbyists, as well as individuals interested in commercial operations or backyard aquaponics for home food production,” reports Nelson, whose latest social justice project is the Living Food Bank, in Northwest Haiti, which will improve nutrition for many through the fresh fish and vegetables grown in their aquaponic system.

Aquaponics system at Sweet Water OrganicsNelson and Pade, Inc.’s greenhouse, where their tours and workshops take place, demonstrates the economic viability of aquaponics and controlled environment agriculture, as well as their Clear Flow Aquaponic Systems, a design that has more than 30 years of research behind it.

Feeding Urban Communities

Backyard aquaponics and home food production caught the attention of revolutionary thinker Will Allen, who bought the last remaining Milwaukee farm in a virtual food desert in 1993. “There was no real food to eat within five blocks of the largest project in the city,” recalls Allen, who realized he wanted to do something about feeding people who only had access to convenience stores and fast food chains. Today, the former pro basketball player invests sweat equity every day in Growing Power, Inc., his community-based urban farm. On his two-acre Community Food Center, just beyond a busy city street, goats graze, chickens peck and scratch, bees buzz and ducks and rabbits thrive. This flurry of activity takes place while 20,000 plants and vegetables grow in greenhouses along with thousands of yellow perch, which are sold to local restaurants and grocery stores.

While people from nations across the globe—Ghana, South America, Peru, Columbia and Argentina—attend the two-day workshops of this 2008 MacArthur Foundation Fellow to learn about greenhouse aquaculture, Allen also hosts youth programs for Milwaukee’s at-risk adolescents. His mission: to provide a healthy alternative to shopping at unhealthy places and to provide an outlet where at-risk youths can be inspired and return to their community, passionate enough to replicate what they have learned so they can feed their families, neighbors and community. "Everybody, regardless of their economic means, should have access to the same healthy, safe, affordable food that is grown naturally,” advises Allen, whose mantra could easily be, “More greenhouses in the ’hood, less greenhouse gas in the air.”

Nourishing the City’s Spirit

Beyond the desire to feed Milwaukee’s hungry with fresh perch and vegetables, James Godsil, co-founder of Sweet Water Organics, seeks to “re-spirit” the city by inspiring neighborhoods to build a sense of community around growing their own food. He is also counting on Milwaukee’s fame as the urban farming capital of the world to help influence residents he hopes will learn to consume less processed food, reduce TV time and lower gas consumption by making fewer car trips to the mall.

“Gardens in our homes and neighborhoods can do this,” says Godsil, who was inspired by Allen. A board member of Growing Power for six years, he is passionate about encouraging Milwaukee residents to reach out to their spiritual leaders and high school teachers in order to advance aquaponics for self-reliance and community-building, as well as enhance their physical and mental health. James Godsil of Sweet Water Organics

“I think we can do it within the next 10 years because there are more people paying attention to concepts like permaculture, sustainability and transformative development, as well as to the triple bottom lines of profitability, social justice and Earth stewardship,” enthuses Godsil, whose dream is to establish a miniature Sweet Water Organics in every Milwaukee school.

An urban farm located in the Bay View neighborhood, Sweet Water has repurposed unused industrial space and strives to become a resource for job creation and use of urban settings. The indoor fish and vegetable farm and 14,000-square-foot academy, like Nelson & Pade, Inc. and Growing Power Inc., draw people from all over the globe for miniature aquaponics workshops that introduce them to small-scale systems appropriate for the home, classroom or workspace.

With the help of the Great Lakes Water Institute, supported by the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Foundation, the initial investment in 5,000 perch, tilapia and plants is well on the way to meeting Godsil’s expectations. “We are expecting to have ‘sweet waters’ for 100,000 perch and 20,000 plants by 2012,” he advises.

An enthusiastic advocate for feeding the masses via urban farming and aquaponics, Godsil notes that the Sweet Water Organics and Milwaukee Renaissance websites attract thousands of individuals who join online discussions. “We are in conversation with people from London, Zurich, Nigeria and other countries who want to partner with Milwaukee to advance this critical 21st century industry,” he explains. “We hypothesize that the human race is at a Pearl Harbor moment, and we think that urban agriculture and aquaponics may be the arsenal needed to face the current environmental crisis.”

Nelson & Pade. Inc., W3731 State Rte. 23, Montello, 53949. Call 608-297-8708 or visit

Growing Power, Inc., 5500 W. Silver Spring Dr., Milwaukee 53218. Call 414-527-1930 or visit

Sweet Water Organics, 2151 S. Robinson Ave., Milwaukee 53207. Call 414-489-0425 or visit

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