When a group of students descended on one Montello business last week it was something like “Top Chef” meets “The Apprentice.”
There were business plans and presentations; there were meals and snacks prepared with locally produced fresh ingredients. There was even a ukulele-accompanied business jingle.
It was all part of a class that teaches college students (and interested older non-traditional students) about the business of aquaponics – growing fish and using their nutrient-rich water to grow vegetables, herbs and other marketable plants.
The course is the brainchild of Rebecca Nelson and John Pade of Nelson and Pade, Inc., a world-leader in aquaponics and University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point biology teacher Chris Hartleb.
The Marquette-county based business teamed with the university to organize the wildly successful course that culminates with three days of working with the actual systems and the food that is produced there in Montello.
It has been a good connection, says Nelson. They have had students from 52 countries take their company-sponsored master classes but they wanted to do more, so they paired up with Hartleb to develop Intro to Aquaponics.
The UW-Stevens Point continues to be the only four-year accredited university in the United States to offer a semester-long aquaponics class, they said.
Students learn the fine points of setting up a system to grow fish together with vegetables in an economically sustainable system that can be set up anywhere in the world.
One of the reasons they helped develop the course is that they grew concerned that the limiting point of these systems – whether large or small – would be having people who know how to operate them.
The course involves 10 weeks of online lectures and discussions. Students learn everything from production and sales to computer-aided design, accounting, finance and nutrient dynamics.
The way an aquaponics system works is that fish are grown in large tanks and water from those tanks is used to bath the roots of plants that are grown in floating trays in the adjacent greenhouse.
Plants are all started from seed and grown in small plugs that are inserted into holes in floating trays. Nelson said seeds germinate in 24 hours and have their first leaflets in 48 hours.
As mature plants are harvested at one end of the system, new plants are added at the other end. The largest bed in her greenhouse was filled with leafy lettuce. Nearby beds were set up to grow larger plants like tomatoes and Brussels sprouts.
The greenhouse is also home to more exotic plants like pomegranate and citrus trees.
Hartleb said the course teaches students the basics of the system. They had 27 students the first year including two from Canada and others from Texas, Connecticut and California.
The second year the class was offered they had 46 students and this year there were 57. “I’ve been at the college 18 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said of the interest in this course.
Because not everyone is interested in college credits and many are unable to travel to Wisconsin for the final three-day activity, he now offers the course in two versions.
Many students who take the class are high school teachers interested in setting up aquaponics systems for their school. Others aim to set up their own commercial systems.
The public/private partnership with Nelson and Pade has been important to making the course a success, says Hartleb. “This has been phenomenal. We couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Jim Held, the UW-Extension’s aquaculture outreach specialist was on hand for the class demonstrations at Nelson and Pade. He said it’s really important for them to learn the business end of these systems.
“They are going to make most of the money off the vegetables. The fish provide the fertilizer and you get a high-quality, premium vegetable. That’s where it’s at,” Held said.
The system’s zero-discharge feature is also important and the system provides multiple uses of the water. “Conservation is an important point,” Held added.
Hartleb said that the whole idea of locally grown food that is chemical free and uses no mined fertilizers is important to many of the students and their potential customers.
These kinds of systems can become doubly important as droughts and crop failures hurt the food supply. “Forty-six percent of California’s vegetable crops won’t even be planted this year,” says Hartleb.
Nelson tells Wisconsin State Farmer that she her husband John Pade had been involved in hydroponics as far back as 25 years, where water-based systems are used to grow plants inside controlled facilities (greenhouses.)
But when they learned about aquaponics – the industry term that combines fish culture with greenhouse plant production, the light bulb really went on for them.
“In hydroponics you’re using mined fertilizers brought in from all over the world. This was a no-brainer for us,” she said, as student activity swirled around her greenhouse Wednesday (May 21.)
“You’re integrating an all-natural protein source and helping people create the system to grow better food.”
The couple works with people in developing countries on the systems to grow fish and vegetables and have sold systems to commercial growers all over the United States. They have traveled around the world to spread the word and help with the technology in these kinds of systems.
Pade is the master engineer of their systems, she said, and 90 percent of the components are made in the United States. Many, like the cedar tank frames, are hand-crafted in their Montello shop.
He has patented and trademarked a filtration system that allows the system to discharge zero water or nutrients into the environment, while also growing more food with the system.
“All of the older systems ended up with some output,” she explained.
Their 12-acre business site on Montello’s west side includes an 8,000-square-foot warehouse and a 5,000-square-foot demonstration greenhouse. They use their system to grow tilapia, a hardy fast-growing fish that is popular in aquaponics systems because two crops of fish can be grown each year.
Other fish can work in the system, like perch, she said, but take a lot longer to reach maturity, which makes the cash-flow a little tighter for a growing business. It’s also a lot easier to get tilapia fingerlings for hobbyists or larger fish-production businesses.
“Tilapia make life easier. They can go from two inches to a harvestable size in six months.”
All new soon
The greenhouse and adjoining facilities were slated for tear-down as soon as the UW-SP project was over last week, to make way for an even larger sized demonstration greenhouse.
Pade said the new, larger facility will incorporate more of the components of a commercial aquaponics system, so those who are interested in the larger systems can see it in action.
“There have been so many advancements in our designs,” he said. “It is time to update. It’s a way for us to show people what we sell.”
Pade said the facility is also designed to show people how to maximize food safety as they learn how to grow it.
Because all of the foods are leafy vegetables or herbs it’s all part of the system to learn about proper food handling protocols. “We have comprehensive training for the staff of everybody who buys a system from us.”
Nelson and Pade were in California for 20 years and did much of their early research there. When they wanted to get back to Wisconsin, closer to family, they picked Montello.
“We picked it randomly but we have stayed here by choice,” she said.
The two each bring their own skill sets to the business she said. “We’re fortunate to be able to work with each other. We have different talents and like being around each other.”
Pade says it’s really gratifying that all their work came together with the current interest in locally grown foods and food security. “More and more people are interested in safe, healthy food.”
It took the pair 20 years to develop their production methods and today that is dovetailing very nicely with a general interest from the consumer side.
The company sold 100,000 square feet of facilities in five states in the last quarter of 2013, he said, and already has 200,000 in the planning stages in five states and two countries for this year.
Nelson said she and her husband offer tours each Friday.
For more, see www.aquaponics.com.