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Project Milwaukee: In-depth reporting on vital issues in the region.

Building Innovative Food Systems

There’s a national movement afoot to grow more food in cities.

And the Milwaukee area stands out as an urban agricultural hotbed, as raised gardens multiply in backyards, empty lots and community spaces. Another promising piece of urban food production is called “aquaponics”.

They’re systems that combine fish and produce.

On this final day of our Project Milwaukee series on the local food economy, Environmental Reporter Susan Bence introduces us to local innovators using this fishy model to inspire future leaders.Sweet Water Organics is a bubbling wonder!

In less than a couple years, three gutsy entrepreneurs took an abandoned crane manufacturing building on Milwaukee’s south side and filled it with, well, let’s ask Jesse Hull to explain.

He’s Sweet Water’s horticulturalist and describes the system, starting at the bottom of a 10,000 gallon tank filled with perch.

“You’ve got fish in there and they’re producing ammonia, We’re bringing that up into plant beds, this one is three tiers high,” Hull says.

Bright leafy lettuce, succulent water cress and such grow at those levels

“And you run the water underneath and the bacteria convert that ammonia into nitrate. The plants consume the nitrate and water comes back in the cleanest water the fish have ever seen,” Hull says.

Hull is constantly testing and tweaking the aquaponic systems inside the factory shell.

Sweet Water is also spilling outside where green houses will eventually consume a two-acre parcel.

Sounds pretty ambitious, but there’s more. Enter Emmanuel Pratt.

The 33 year old has lived a nomadic life, starting in Richmond Virginia. Pratt says he and his mom moved a lot.

“That probably why I got so obsessed and fascinated with cities and how they change and how communities like the ones I grew up were impacted,” Pratt says.

Pratt studied architecture, thinking he might design buildings.

He eventually earned a master’s in architecture and urban design and moved on to urban planning PhD program.

But Pratt says the more he learned about the plight of many cities, the more he despaired.

“I was overloaded with problems, looking at public housing and the fall of public housing and people having to go to 15 different schools, ended up in homeless shelters,” Pratt says.

Pratt says his turning point came when he acted on an invitation to meet Will Allen, the Milwaukee farmer who’s been pioneering urban gardening worldwide.

“I came up and met the Big Guy and I was like, there are a lot of solutions. This is it! Looking at urban agriculture through this lens for coming up with new solutions for otherwise blighted properties,” Pratt says.

That “aha moment” coincidentally coincided with Pratt becoming aware of Sweet Water Organics.

“Just one of those things that blows your mind,” Pratt says.

Pratt began pushing the operation out in other directions. He now heads its nonprofit arm.

“Its focus and reach is out to students and teachers and people who are interested in different ways of doing innovative ideas of either urban agriculture or aquaculture,” Pratt says.

A few years ago Loyola Academy High School in Milwaukee set up its own small aquaponics system, but Pratt says sadly neither fish nor plant flourished.

“Because what they didn’t have was water chemistry they didn’t have other kind of horticultural advise, biological advise, systems analysis and maintenance and how to incorporate it rigorously more into the educational side, so, now they do,” Pratt says.

Pratt and other Sweet Water staff and volunteers are on hand to help Loyola students sort out their strategy; for starters – organize the greenhouse.

“You got tools over here, you got tools over here you got wood here, pots over there, how’s this organized,” Pratt says.

Pratt’s mantra is look at the situation, brainstorm and come up with a plan.

Student Radamir Sanchez says he learned a lot from Loyola’s first, failed aquaponics experiment.

“We had plants coming over, flowing, that wasn’t good for the fish and for the other plants at the bottom,” Sanchez says.

In fact Sanchez helped haul out the last batch of talipia when the system tanked.

Now he’s one of the students taking the lead in Loyola’s aquaponic renaissance.

Sanchez wants to be able to harvest fresh herbs and greens to use in building his cooking skills.

“I did many kinds of cooking, especially Hispanic, but I’m trying to do all kinds of cooking, that’s basically my major,” Sanchez says.

Sweet Water is not the only local group inspiring students to create and manage a living system that generates food.

Students at Vincent High School have raised plants from seed and even harvested a pineapple from their pineapple tree.

Teacher Richard DePalma is guiding his Greenhouse Techniques class as it designs and builds its own aquaponics system. Several of his students are on hand

“My name is Davonta Daniels. My name is Brian Hawthorne. My name is Nathan Grier. My name is Jeffrey Chandler.”

They show me the prototype that occupies part of their very organized greenhouse.

“We built this by ourselves. We transplanted some plants. As you can see, we’ve got goldfish swimming around. The goldfish are basically here to give the plants food. The plants take out the nitrate and filter the water to make it clean for the fish.”

They’ll build a much larger system across the hall; stocking a 270 gallon tank with talipia and pumping the water up into trays of tomatoes and lettuce.

Student Jeffrey Chandler says he’s looking forward to tending the plants.

“Because I first I didn’t really know about the plants and now I like it a lot. I really like watering the plants to make sure they grow even more and be even more healthy,” Chandler says.

As for Davonta Daniels:

“I’m thinking about going into landscaping, going to college for landscaping,” Daniels says.

If you ask Emmanuel Pratt what he thinks of the innovation and excitement surrounding new urban food systems, he calls it an awakening.