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Published June 18, 2009, 07:30 AM

Aquaponics facility may become a cash generator for dairy industry

Minnesota News
A rural Baldwin, Wis. commercial property may hold the future for agriculture.

By: Jeff Holmquist, RiverTown Newspaper Group

A rural Baldwin, Wis. commercial property may hold the future for agriculture.

Just outside of town is the building site for the new “Future Farm Food and Fuel” facility, a business partner with the Emerald and Baldwin Dairy operations.

Steve Meyer, director of operations, has been working on the idea for the new facility for about two years. Progress has slowed in recent months, as investors scramble to find the financing needed to get the project completed.

“It’s been a real challenge finding the financing,” he said. “But once we get going, we’ll have all kinds of banker friends. I’m pretty confident with this.”

Meyer now says he’s ready to finish construction of the 27,000-square-foot building and start production inside. The goal is to begin operations by late this fall -- about a year later than expected.

Meyer hopes to hire six to eight construction workers in the coming weeks to work on the project. The goal is to have the concrete floor poured by the end of July.

Once the facility is up and running, Meyer is convinced Future Farm Food and Fuel could revolutionize the state’s dairy industry.

According to the plan, the plant will be producing fresh lettuce, herbs and other vegetables for sale at farmers markets and to area wholesalers.

The unusual thing is that no soil will be used in the growing process.

Instead, the vegetables will be “planted” on styrofoam beds that will float on nutrient-filled water that will feed the plants.

Live tilapia, numbering about 30,000 to 40,000, will be raised elsewhere in the facility to provide the “fertilized” warm water.

The Baldwin Dairy, which sits across the road from the Future Farm Food and Fuel facility, will provide the heated water needed to sustain the fish and plants in the building.

The entire closed-circle process is called “aquaponics,” or the symbiotic cultivation of plants and aquatic animals in a recirculating environment.

“Every piece of the process we’re doing is proven technology,” Meyer said. “Putting it all together the way we’re doing it is new.”

The Future Farm idea is just the next step in the Emerald and Baldwin Dairy’s progression toward “green” technology. The large dairy operation, under the direction of owner John Vrieze, already has installed anaerobic digesters, which recovers methane gas from animal manure to create a source of energy.

The process also results in clean, warm water discharge from the dairy operations. The dairy’s high-tech process has been recognized across the state for its innovation.

But Meyer and Vrieze wanted to figure out a way to capture the wasted energy stored in the warm discharge water and use it. That’s how the aquaponics idea came about.

Once the aquaponics facility is fully operational, Meyer said he expects to harvest about 600,000 heads of lettuce a year. He is also considering herb production as well, which would provide even more profit for the operation in the long run.

A secondary product will be the sale of 50,000 pounds of fresh tilapia annually, Meyer said.

Both the produce and the fish will fit well in the “locally grown” movement, Meyer predicted, where people are willing to pay more for food that’s raised in a chemical-free environment nearby.

“The buy local program is so strong now,” he said. “We think we will triple the size of this facility before long.”

Future Farm has already done well with its “locally grown” efforts. They recently were accepted as new vendors at the St. Paul Farmers Market, an approval process that can take several years but took them only a few weeks.

Meyer had to scramble to find enough products to sell at the weekly market, but it’s been a huge success so far. They are selling three types of lettuce, cheese and flavored cheese, herbs and soil mixtures to customers at the present time.

Once the aquaponics plant is operating, some of the produce and fish will be sold at the St. Paul market as well.

The extra produce will be sold to wholesalers across the region.

Once Future Farm Food and Fuel officials can prove to others that their idea will work, Meyer said he hopes to “franchise” the aquaponics process to dairy farmers across the state.

“We want to duplicate this in other places,” he said. “We’re trying to get Wisconsin’s dairy industry more diversified and help the state become a major supplier of produce in the nation.”

The innovation at Future Farm won’t stop with the aquaponics facility.

Meyer vows to continue his research into ways to convert waste products into environmentally-friendly energy and food. He is also looking into energy creation through algae production, electrical generation through wind and other ideas.

For information about Future Farm Food and Fuel, visit www.afuturefarm.com.

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