Farm of the Future: Aquaponics?

Milwaukee hopes to pioneer new tech advances in farming that would create jobs and eliminate food deserts in depressed neighborhoods.
December 2011
Steve Towns
By Steve Towns  | 

Can high-tech, water-based farming be an economic springboard for the Milwaukee region? It’s a question that city officials, private businesses, academics and nonprofits hope to answer over the next year or so.

In March, Milwaukee was one of 24 cities worldwide to win a Smarter Cities Challenge Grant from IBM, which provides $500,000 in consulting help to tackle critical quality-of-life issues. This summer, a team from IBM spent several weeks interviewing potential stakeholders in what proponents hope will be a burgeoning “aquaponics” industry that creates jobs and eliminates food deserts in depressed neighborhoods.

Aquaponics combines hydroponics, where plants are cultivated in water instead of soil, and aquaculture, the farming of fish and other marine creatures. It uses a series of tanks and pumps to create a closed loop where fish waste fertilizes the plants and plants purify water for the fish. Until now, aquaponics in the U.S. largely has been the province of hobbyists, but it’s drawing more attention as a sustainable approach to urban agriculture.

“We’ve already shown that individuals can do this in their basement. One issue is can we scale this up,” says Claus Dunkelberg, business development director for the Milwaukee Water Council, a group of local water technology companies, government agencies and academics that was instrumental in acquiring the IBM grant.

Plan supporters envision warehouse-sized aquaponics operations that are equipped with sophisticated sensing devices to boost efficiency, and backed by research that multiplies fish spawning cycles and boosts crop production. These facilities could be housed in vacant buildings in poor neighborhoods, providing jobs and a supply of nutritious, locally produced food for residents. In the bigger picture, proponents want Milwaukee to develop industry leading expertise in technologies, science and distribution techniques that will move aquaponics out of the basement and into large-scale use.

The IBM report makes recommendations aimed in that direction, including creating an urban agriculture and aquaponics council that would assemble interested parties -- like major companies, universities, the city public works and local aquaponics start-ups. The report also proposes launching an aquaponics innovation center to share scientific and technological breakthroughs and serve as an incubator for new companies.

Since the report’s release, there’s been movement toward creating an aquaponics council, Dunkelberg says, but that could take a year or two to coalesce. Ultimately, the Milwaukee Water Council could be a template for the new group, he adds. The 4-year-old council is a hub for water-related research and economic development in the region, assembling related companies, government agencies, educational institutions, nongovernmental organizations and investors under one umbrella.

An aquaponics council needs the same mix, says Dunkelberg. “I call them the five food groups -- and that’s what you need if it’s going to be sustainable.”

Many details must still be worked out, including complex questions about business models and funding. But Dunkelberg says the potential is there, pointing to growing reliance on farm-raised seafood and mounting interest in locally produced food. Few places are better positioned to exploit that trend, he argues, than Milwaukee, with its longstanding expertise in food processing and freshwater research -- not to mention the town’s passion for a good fish dinner.

“I’ve yet to find any region that’s more hung up on fish fry,” Dunkelberg says. “It’s unreal.”