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Farming without the dirt: Sauk County family raises fish and lettuce in all-water system
Chris Meuiner, left, and his parents, Norbert and Donna Meuiner, were the first to install an aquaponics system of its type in Wisconsin about five years ago. Photo Credit: Sara Bredesen
  Chris Meuiner, left, and his parents, Norbert and Donna Meuiner, were the first to install an aquaponics system of its type in Wisconsin about five years ago. Photo Credit: Sara Bredesen  

Posted: Tuesday, July 9, 2013 3:16 pm

NORTH FREEDOM — Chris Meuiner said he is definitely a farmer with long days of hard work raising crops and livestock, but he has figured out how to do it without getting his hands in the dirt.

Chris and his parents, Donna and Norbert Meuiner, and an uncle, John Ringsdorf, operate KP Simply Fresh, a five-year-old aquaponics business near North Freedom in Sauk County. The family pioneered the first aquaponics system of its kind in Wisconsin five years ago and will be one of nearly a dozen fish farms in the state to hold open houses for the public July 20 for Wisconsin Aquaculture Day.

Aquaponics is a two-part system where fish — in this case tilapia — are raised in tanks. Nutrient-rich water from the tanks is pumped to 12- to 15-inch-deep grow beds with rafts of lettuce floating on top. Lettuce roots dangle into the water, drawing up nutrients for the plants before it is pumped clean back to the fish tanks.

Fish are not new to the Meuiners. Donna ran a tropical fish business in Milwaukee until their family of four children started growing and they moved out of the city.

They shifted into game machines and supplied parlors all over the state. As gaming started to drop off in recent years, Norbert said he was looking for a new enterprise.

“Now we thought, we like the fish, why not go back into it? But around here we couldn’t raise enough fish to make a living,” he said.

They watched a TV show about aquaponics and liked the idea.

Four people run the whole business. Donna plants, tends, harvests, packages, markets and delivers lettuce to nearby schools, hospitals, nursing homes, grocery stores, farmers markets and a growing number of restaurants.

“I always say the best part of the whole scenario is that I also take the checks to the bank, and we eat lettuce every day,” she said, laughing.

Lettuce grows to maturity in five to six weeks under a greenhouse cover and floating in 72-degree water.

“The advantage is when it’s 20 degrees out there’s not much going in the farming fields, but we’re still growing lettuce every day and pushing between 800 and 1,000 heads a week,” Chris said.

They hope to boost production to 1,400 to 1,700 heads a week with the expansion.

Donna markets the 20-or-so varieties of lettuce as chemical-free but not organic.

“There are chemicals that are allowed in organic farming that would kill my fish, so we don’t even use that,” she said. “If we have an issue, we use all biological controls, which simply means that I release lady bugs every other week, and they take care of whatever problem I have.”

There are no chemicals or growth hormones at the fish end of it either, because they would harm the plants. About 1,800 to 2,000 fish are kept in the system to support lettuce production.

They are brought in as fingerlings and distributed among other tanks as they grow. Fish are harvested at about 2 pounds and shipped to an outside processor.

“We can sell every pound of fish that we can get, but we don’t always have fish available, because we need the nutrients from the fish to get the lettuce,” Norbert said. “The lettuce is our moneymaker. We lose money on every fish that we sell, but we don’t have to buy fertilizer.”

The expansion has been physically draining, Norbert said. The original setup had fish and grow beds in the same greenhouse. The expansion separated the two. Using no outside help, the family dismantled all the fish tanks, water supply and electrical and moved it to a different building. Four more grow beds were installed in the greenhouse.

Chris said the family knew they were getting into a labor-intensive business, but it wasn’t much different from the long days they had worked before.

“It’s farming. It’s not celebrity, it’s not millions of dollars, and you’re married to your company,” he said.

The plan is to grow the business enough to be able to hire employees to do the repetitive work and keep the family on the management side. The infrastructure of the expansion is in place and will be planted as soon as markets for additional lettuce can be found.

Between 300 and 400 visitors are expected to tour the business for Aquaculture Day July 20. Chris said the message he wants them to take home is that a combined food system like theirs is viable.

“This is the farming of the future. Stuff like this is how we are going to feed the planet,” he said. “Right now we are harvesting between 800 and 1,000 heads of lettuce a week in a little 5,000 square feet of beds down there. It’s more to open people’s eyes to see what we can do.”

 

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