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Opinion

Future Farm finds productive uses for cow, fish waste

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November 15, 2012

As a new Undergraduate Research Fellow of The St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development (SCISCD), I was invited to a local farm tour organized by the Institute’s director, Kelly Cain. Cain hopes to foster relationships between local sustainable farmers and Sodexo, our campus food service provider.

“In partnership with Sodexo, our campus has a rare opportunity to bring significant quantities of high quality, locally produced food onto the campus, keep student money in the community, support local jobs and make a significant cut in the carbon footprint of our campus food supply. It is a win-win-win opportunity,” said Cain.

About 22 miles Northeast of campus, Future Farm serves as the preliminary site for investigating a local farm-to-table relationship. Cain describes Future Farm as “one of the premier ‘disruptive entrepreneur’ local food producers in the Upper Midwest, if not the nation.”

Last week, driving to Baldwin in two UW-River Falls vans with representatives from Sodexo, the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences (CAFES), UWRF Facilities and SCISCD, we were about to find out why.

Although it was overcast and chilly when we arrived at Future Farm, inside the large greenhouse and processing facility it was comfortably warm. All thanks to the cows across the highway.

Future Farm uses methane energy to heat its 27,000 square foot facility.  Methane is harvested from the anaerobic manure digester, turning conventional dairy waste product into a boon. Manure is both rich in organic matter as well as microorganisms. When sealed in an oxygen-free environment, the anaerobic microorganisms convert the digested manure into methane and other gases.

Manure is plentiful at the Baldwin Dairy, a sister company conveniently located next door. Pam and John Vrieze own and operate both businesses, continuing a 105-year family farming legacy with a big twist. Cow manure is not the only focus of their creative rethinking of waste: fish poo, too.

After getting a pump of hand sanitizer and stepping on a saturated disinfection mat, the first thing to catch my eye when entering the building was the aquaculture ponds. They are deep blue plastic tanks, some as wide as a four person hot tub. As John oriented us to the farm and its history, the hum of flowing water filled the vast enclosed space.

Pam and John raise and sell tilapia and albino catfish and are considering phasing in prawns on a larger scale. The fish are vital in fertilizing the greens and herbs that Future Farm provides locally to restaurants, supermarkets and private customers.

In fact, the fish are in a symbiotic relationship with the plants, contributing to a sustainable farming practice called “aquaponics.” This is the fusion of aquaculture (the farming of fish) with hydroponics (the growing of plants in nutrient-rich water without soil). The fish are fed pellets and through normal digestion and excretion of ammonia, they provide fertile water for the plants in the main greenhouse.

I had never been in a soilless greenhouse before. Brightly lit on a gray day, the white PVC pipes and white plastic-lined troughs gave the greenhouse the impression of a laboratory. Basil, leafy green lettuce, water cress, romaine and salad mix all floated neatly upon square panels of pink Styrofoam in their separate canals of shallow water.

After germinating atop tiny foam cubes, the plugs fit in a grid of matching holes in the Styrofoam floats, letting the roots grow and trail beneath in the fish-effluent water.
The plants will eventually be on someone’s plate, but in the 37 days it takes to mature for harvest, they are working hard for the fish. Aerobic bacteria convert the ammonia from the fish into nitrates, making for an efficient absorption of nutrients for the plants. This is vital since the water is recycled in a closed loop. Otherwise nutrients would accumulate to toxic concentrations for the fish.

Aquaponics is a new practice not without its risks and costs. The Vriezes invested extensively in the new building and equipment without a mentor or accessible models to evolve from. They come from a traditional dairy farm background but have thrust themselves into the unknown of cutting-edge sustainable agribusiness, living up to the name of Future Farm.

I am excited Sodexo is open to considering Future Farm as a sustainable food producer for our campus. As students, we also have a role in campus sustainability.
If you would like to see more local, organic and sustainable food options on campus, go to: http://www.uwrf-menus.com/feedback.html (you can call, e-submit feedback or talk to a manager in person) and let Sodexo know.

Another option is to support Future Farm by buying their greens, which are sold locally at Dick’s Fresh Market. Of course, shopping at our downtown co-op, Whole Earth Grocery, will always provide access to good local food. One other intriguing opportunity is that the Vriezes welcome earnest student research on their farm. To learn more, contact Pam Vrieze at pam@afuturefarm.com.

Molly Breitmün is a non-traditional student majoring in conservation with a minor in GIS. Her interest in campus sustainability was fostered by becoming an undergraduate fellow for the St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development as well as by her peers in the Student Alliance for Local and Sustainable Agriculture.