A Greener Shade of Ag

 

“Go Green!” “Recycle!” “Save the Earth!!”

For years we’ve been bombarded with calls to action beseeching us to pay attention to the health of our planet. Few have answered that call the way Wisconsin farmer John Vrieze has.

On one side of County Road E in Baldwin, you’ll see what looks like a typical dairy farm. It’s one of two partner locations owned by the Vrieze family and it houses just over 1,000 cows. It looks typical, but what makes it unique is what’s done with the waste produced there. Turn around and look at the other side of the road. See that greenhouse looking place? It’s a 27,000 square foot aquaponic and hydroponic facility producing all natural vegetables and Tilapia fish without the use of chemicals or pesticides. Here’s the link: That entire facility is powered by the manure from the dairy cows.

John’s family history in farming follows the pattern of growth most Wisconsin farms have; handed down generation to generation, increasing in size to meet consumer demands and the needs of a growing family. Grandpa started in 1906 with 18 cows and now there are 2,250 in two locations complete with a transition management facility which houses on average 450 fresh and dry cows. The level of growth alone he’s achieved on his dairies is something John Vrieze can be proud of, but John isn’t just a knowledgeable dairyman and an astute businessman, he is also a determined and creative conservationist.

And, he bores easily.

In 2006 John began working on an anaerobic digester, an investment that would not only reduce the impact of the farm waste, but also contribute to the profitability of the business. The digester was built with the intention of converting biogas – derived from cow manure – to natural gas, which at the time was selling for $10 per therm. Unfortunately by the time the digester was up and running, the value of natural gas had dropped to $2.50 per therm and thereby no longer a profitable solution. John found the local electric co-op to be less than supportive, so he began to experiment on his own.

John continued to test ideas and theories, evoking the help of friends and colleagues. Throughout all his experimenting, he found plenty of concepts that didn’t work. He didn’t have the luxury of counting on the research of others because he found unlike dairymen, those in-the-know about organic farming and hydroponics, were not necessarily willing to share their information. When he turned to experts, he found their expertise was limited to operations much smaller than he was working towards, so the knowledge they could contribute was limited at best. In the end, the greatest teacher in John’s operation has been his own trial and error.

He’s raised catfish, prawn, perch and tilapia, eventually finding the tilapia to be the most economic and resistant to disease. He’s grown lettuce of all sorts; bib, romaine, frilly and red leaf as well as other plants like basil, oregano and water crest. He’s even grown different types of lettuce together, so you may have a single lettuce plant that will give you romaine leaves for your salad, and bib to put on your sandwich. Because the lettuce is grown in water and without soil, if you were to purchase one of John’s lettuce plants, you could take it home, place it in water and it will continue to grow and produce leaves. So unlike a traditional head of iceberg lettuce, which takes on average of 25 to 30 gallons of water to grow and once purchased, has a very limited shelf life – John’s lettuce, takes about 2 gallons of water to grow and can last indefinitely.

John explains that often the choice of what to grow is driven by market demand, as most of what they produce goes directly to restaurants, the majority of which are located in the Twin Cities.

The process for raising tilapia begins when week-old fish are received at Future Farm. During the seven months or so they are raised, the fish waste feeds into the aquaponics serving as fertilizer for the plants. Then the nitrites are converted to nitrates and the water is recycled back to the fish. The only water ever added is due to attrition. One of the most amazing benefits of their process is, not only do they give new meaning to recycling, but also, because of the controlled environment and no manure use, there is no risk of e-coli or need for pesticides in their products.

When the fish are ready for harvest, they typically weigh between 1 ½ to 2 pounds. The staff filet the tilapia before they leave the facility, which is just the way the chefs like it. Fish from Future Farm go from water to plate in just six to twelve hours, which is just the way the customers like it!

So what’s next for John Vrieze and his Future Farm? They’ll likely just keep working to find a better way to do things. While John believes the past generations of farmers in his family would be proud of the changes he’s made, it’s his grandchildren that fill him with a sense of responsibility to leave the world a healthier place.

John and his wife Pam are fortunate enough to have all six of their children within a nine mile radius. Pam was raised on a dairy farm as well, and all the couple’s children have a working knowledge of the farm. John says his ultimate goal would be to live off the grid, on a large scale. He says it’s possible, it’s just not economical… yet. Seems like between his determination, willingness to try new ideas and his family’s history of farming, it won’t be long before they find a way to make it work.

To learn more about Future Farm, visit them online at www.afuturefarm.com

About the Author:
Shelli Manning is a freelance writer who has partnered with ANIMART to share the human interest side of individuals in production agriculture and communicate their passions which contribute to our unique American Story. She is the published author of Little Fish, as well as a motivational speaker on women’s issues and an advocate for the reduction of domestic violence.