Imagine Aquaponics to bring educational aquaponics system to Hawley Environmental School

Those of you who have been long-time readers of Blogging Blue may recall the questions I’ve raised about Sweet Water “Organics,” the now-defunct company that was producing “organic” produce grown using aquaponics.

Despite my criticisms of Sweet Water “Organics,” I still believe in the viability of the use of aquaponics as a means of growing produce in urban settings, and now Jesse Hull and Molly Stanek of Imagine Aquaponics are bringing their expertise to a new project here in Milwaukee.

Currently Imagine Aquaponics is designing and building educational aquaponic systems in Wisconsin schools, while collaborating on plans for new aquaponic farms in California, Colorado, Texas, Michigan, and Africa.

“Imagine Aquaponics is very pleased to have procured a grant through the Aquaponics Association to fund the construction of an educational aquaponics system of our design within the rooftop greenhouse of Hawley Environmental School. We look forward to working with teachers Casey Mcevilly & Lesley Zylstra and the students of the Hawley Aquaponics Club. It is our belief that the refitted greenhouse at Hawley will become a beacon for other educators in realizing just how possible it is to establish and maintain a food growing system in our schools, to provide the platform for a curriculum that can teach our young people the value of science, technology, engineering and math in creating more sustainable and nutritious methods of food production.”

I’ll have updates on this new project as they’re available, and if you’d like to learn more about Imagine Aquaponics, you can visit their website.

The saga of Sweet Water “Organics” continues (VIDEO)

Over the course of the past year or so, I’ve written quite a bit about Sweet Water “Organics”, the urban aquaponics operation that was neither organic (as its name indicated) or successful, as Sweet Water “Organics” closed its doors after failing to meet job creation numbers mandated in the terms of a $250,000 loan given to Sweet Water “Organics” by the City of Milwaukee.

On May 13 of this year, Tom Daykin of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported the City of Milwaukee would seize equipment used by the defunct Sweet Water “Organics” with the hopes of reducing the amount owed by the company on that defaulted loan, an amount which stood at $137,205.

On Monday, February 18 of this year, Sweet Water “Organics” co-founder Jim Godsil appeared before the Community & Economic Development Committee of the Milwaukee Common Council to discuss the status of the city’s $250,000 forgivable loan to Sweet Water, and during his remarks (starting at about 1:38:00 of the video below) Godsil noted that thanks to the City of Milwaukee’s loan to Sweet Water “Organics,” that company was able to bring in aquaponics expert Charlie Price, who then designed a “state of the art” aquaponics system at Sweet Water. Following Godsil’s remarks, Sweet Water Foundation Executive Director Emmanuel Pratt reiterated the fact that the Sweet Water 2.0 system was designed by Charlie Price.

Here’s the video from the February 18 meeting of the Community & Economic Development Committee meeting, along with a LINK in case the embedded video isn’t working.

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Despite their remarks to the Community & Economic Development Committee that Sweet Water’s 2.0 aquaponics system was designed by Charlie Price, Charlie Price himself has disavowed the system used by Sweet Water, writing in an email, “this isn’t really our design at all,” adding that “the whole thing turned into a shambles” when Sweet Water didn’t follow his design instructions. In fact, Price noted that in January/February 2013, he wrote to them (Sweet Water “Organics”) asking them to not refer to their system as a “Charlie Price system” as it wasn’t a system he had designed. I don’t know why Godsil and Pratt misrepresented their “state of the art” aquaponics system as having been designed by Charlie Price, but their remarks strike me as being more about the preservation of their respective enterprises rather than being driven by a desire to be completely forthcoming about the true state of operations at Sweet Water “Organics.”

So despite their assertions that their system was designed by aquaponics expert Charlie Price, the fact is the Sweet Water 2.0 system as explained by Jim Godsil and Emmanuel Pratt wasn’t designed (or approved) by Charlie Price.

It’s been reported that Sweet Water “Organics” wanted to change the terms of the forgivable loan it had received from the City of Milwaukee, in order to allow the Sweet Water Foundation to take over the loan and the task of creating more jobs. However, according to the February 18 remarks given by Executive Director Pratt of the Sweet Water Foundation, that group did not want to be responsible for direct job creation, instead focusing on its education efforts as a means of indirectly creating jobs for those it educated.

Sweet Water “Organics” and those responsible for running that company are directly responsible for the failure of their venture, and that failure should not be rewarded by altering the terms of the loan given to Sweet Water “Organics” by the City of Milwaukee to give a sweetheart deal to the Sweet Water Foundation.

Building housing Sweet Water “Organics” up for lease

As reported by Katherine Keller of the Bay View Compass, the building that currently houses troubled aquaponics operation Sweet Water “Organics” is up for lease.

Commercial Realty Advisors, LLC has listed the space occupied by Sweet Water Organics, 2151 S. Robinson Avenue for lease.  Described as ideal for light distribution, industrial service, or manufacturing the listing includes 9,000 square feet of office and warehouse space. It is listed at $3.50 per SF NNN. The property is owned by Steven Lindner, whose Milwaukee rental-property company, Big Whale, LLC filed Chapter 11 in 2011.

When queried about whether or not Sweet Water will continue to operate in a different location or close down their sprouts, compost, and fish production operation District 14 Zielinski said, “The only thing I can say right now is that we’re looking at the options. The city is working on a number of different options. One would be to have Sweet Water Foundation operate at the same location,” he said.”

This news certainly can’t bode well for the continued viability of Sweet Water.

Sweet Water “Organics” fails to create jobs, must repay loan from City of Milwaukee (EDITED)

Ed. Note: Edited to reflect the fact that the folks at SWO want the job creation conditions contained in their original loan with the City of Milwaukee removed before the loan is transferred to the non-profit Sweet Water Foundation.

Why am I not shocked by this?

Sweet Water Organics fell far short of its job creation goal for 2012, triggering a requirement that it repay around $63,000 of a city loan by March 1.

Sweet Water isn’t likely to meet that deadline, and is seeking changes in the loan terms, Milwaukee aldermen were told Monday.

If the company, which raises fish and vegetables, misses the deadline, the entire $144,199 balance is due by March 11, according to a report to the Common Council’s Community and Economic Development Committee.

Sweet Water has spent around $207,000, mainly on new hoop houses and fish production equipment.

According to the terms of its loan agreement with the City of Milwaukee, Sweet Water “Organics” needed to have 21 full-time workers by the end of 2012 in order to have its loan payment for that year waived. As reported by Tom Daykin of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Sweet Water had just 2.35 jobs.

Not surprisingly, the folks at Sweet Water “Organics” now want the Milwaukee Common Council to change the loan’s terms to include a provision the nonprofit Sweet Water Foundation to take over the loan and the task of creating more jobs while the job creation requirements would be removed from the loan. Members of the Common Council’s Community and Economic Development Committee have asked Sweet Water to create a specific proposal on how the nonprofit Sweet Water Foundation would create jobs. I find it incredibly hard to believe that the nonprofit Sweet Water Foundation would be any more successful in creating jobs than the for-profit arm of Sweet Water was.

To read more on the myriad of problems that have plagued Sweet Water “Organics,” click here.

Sweet Water Organics – not really organic

Back in March and April, I wrote two entries about Sweet Water Organics (SWO) questioning how many jobs SWO has really created since receiving a $250,000 forgivable loan from the City of Milwaukee and questioning whether Sweet Water Organics was really organic according to USDA standards.

At the time I questioned whether SWO was certified by the USDA, but an email exchange yesterday with Todd Leech, the VP/Sales Manager of SWO, confirmed that Sweet Water Organics really isn’t USDA-certified organic. Here’s what Leech had to say in response to my inquiry:

No, Jesse [Hull] lost all the paperwork I gave him in the first place. We are currently working with Oregon Tilth at the recommendation of my friends at MOSA and our sprouts will be certified soon and the rest to follow. If you’ve ever worked at a farm in this country you’d understand the politics of the USDA who’s more in line with Monsanto than farmers or producers. The only reason that I’m going forward with organic certification is because it means more to people like you than understanding real local agricultural systems. The organic mess that the USDA certification has created makes it more profitable for Chilean farmers to ship to China then to Canada before import to the U.S. and still be cheaper than farmers from East Troy, Boscobel, Viroqua or Milwaukee who can’t compete, ergo people like you and companies like Wal-Mart propagate this system.

Asked if he had any response to Todd Leech’s accusation that he lost “all the paperwork” pertaining to USDA organic certification, Jesse Hull emailed me noting, “I did not “lose all the paperwork” that Todd gave me. It was left in the filing cabinet just as all the other documents and property of SWO was.”

It’s worth noting that even if Todd Leech’s version of things is to be believed, it’s taken just about a year for Leech to re-file the paperwork, paperwork that from what I can tell is readily available, begging the question why the folks at SWO seem to be dragging their feet when it comes to seeking official “organic” certification.

While there seems to be some dispute about why SWO is still not a USDA-certified organic operation four years after it came into being, the misuse of the label “organic” on food packaging and by companies seeking to capitalize on the reputation of all things “organic” is a more common practice than one would think, according to the Cornucopia Institute’s blog.

“Companies are getting away with using the word ‘organic’ in their company name, listed prominently on food packages, even if the product they’re selling isn’t certified organic,” explains Charlotte Vallaeys, Farm and Food Policy Analyst with The Cornucopia Institute. “These companies are taking advantage of the good name and reputation of organics, without going the extra mile to actually source all organic ingredients in their products.”

Considering the fact that Todd Leech of Sweet Water Organics has confirmed via email that SWO is not actually certified organic by the USDA, it would seem that SWO fits into the category of companies that are “taking advantage of the good name and reputation of organics” without going the extra mile to actually be organic.

JSOnline picks up Sweet Water Organics story

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve asked some questions about the health and practices of Sweet Water Organics (SWO) and the folks involved in that company.

Tom Daykin of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is reporting on Sweet Water Organics as well, and there’s one passage from Daykin’s report I find to be particularly telling. It’s now been revealed that a group of SWO employees left the company over the first half of 2011 after being owed thousands of dollars in unpaid wages, and when asked about his support for a $250,000 forgivable loan the City of Milwaukee made to SWO (with his support), Ald. Tony Zielinski said he didn’t know those employees had left SWO due to unpaid wages (due diligence, anyone?). Ald. Zielinski went on to say he would have still supported the City-backed $250,000 loan to SWO , saying, “I have the highest regard for Sweet Water. They are a pioneering company,” adding, “Obviously, with pioneers, there are going to be bumps on the road.”

“Bumps on the road” are one thing, but what’s going on at Sweet Water Organics seems to me to be more than simply some “bumps on the road” and part of a larger pattern of mismanagement/ineptitude when it comes to “getting things right” at Sweet Water Organics.

Two more questions about Sweet Water Organics

Last week I asked some questions about the finances and “job creation” efforts of Milwaukee’s Sweet Water Organics (SWO). As a followup to that original entry, I wanted to delve into two issues that I felt weren’t germane to the point of my original entry.

So what’s buried outside?

As reported by Michael Timm of the Bay View Compass back in July 2010, nine 5,000-gallon insulated trenches were being built on the grounds outside of SWO’s main building to raise 35,000 fish. However, it’s been reported that those insulated trenches have since been completely filled in and buried where they stood, leaving the chemically treated lumber and polystyrene insulation used to insulate the trenches still in the ground (see attached).

I attempted to contact Todd Leech, Sweet Water Organics’ VP/Sales Manager, regarding the outdoor trenches having been buried, and he responded that due to a family emergency I should, “just read the other articles about it.” I attempted to find out more information about why the decision was made to bury SWO’s outdoor fish trenches, and though I did find articles mentioning the construction of the trenches, I was not able to find any articles mentioning why the trenches were ultimately buried.

So my questions remain: Why were SWO’s outdoor fish trenches buried, and were they buried “as-is,” with the chemically-treated lumber and polystyrene insulation still in the ground?

Is Sweet Water Organics really organic?

The name “Sweet Water Organics” seems to make it pretty clear that the products produced by SWO (fish & produce) are organic, but I’ve not been able to find any mention of SWO having been certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USA) National Organic Program as being “organic.” The Sweet Water Organics website does not carry the USDA’s Organic Seal, and a search of the Midwest Organic Services Association’s (MOSA) MOSA Associate Directory did not return any results for Sweet Water Organics. It’s worth noting MOSA is an accredited certifying agent for the USDA’s National Organic Program, so it would seem logical their Associate Directory would include Sweet Water Organics if SWO was in fact certified as being organic.

So is Sweet Water Organics really organic? It certainly seems that the answer to that question is no, which would certainly be a disappointment.

So what’s next?

In the next couple of weeks, my plan is to share some thoughts (not mine, but those of folks much more knowledgeable than me) about how aquaponics/urban gardening can be done right, because I believe that there’s plenty of opportunity for aquaponics/urban gardening to be done properly (and profitably).

Urban gardening taking root in post-Katrina NOLA

This is just a great story…

When the levee along the Industrial Canal failed back in 2005 and the wall of water drowned much of New Orleans’ Lower Nine, the area north of Claiborne Avenue – the poorest section of the neighborhood – was hardest hit. Not surprisingly, the stretch has been slowest to recover. Five years after the devastating hurricane, the area still does not have a supermarket or store that sells fresh produce. Today, where houses once stood, jungle-like growths have consumed the lands. Other homes, still abandoned, are slanted and Burtonesque.

But just as strange is another thing in the neighborhood, right on Benton Street between North Roman and North Debigny. “We call it ‘The Volcano’,” says Brennan Dougherty. “We just started the compost pile back in April, and it’s already almost 15 feet tall and 40 feet long.” Then like a proud parent she adds, “It produces the most beautiful soil you’ve ever seen.” Dougherty is the manager of a farm in the Lower Nine where organic vegetables are grown and goats raised where drug deals used to take place. (See pictures of the surreal remains of Six Flags New Orleans.)

At five each morning, Dougherty hops into a pick-up truck and drives 8.9 miles to the Whole Foods on Magazine Street. The store donates its vegetable waste to the farm, which helps explain the Volcano’s growth spurt and rich content. Dougherty’s farm is connected to an independent community school, Our School at Blair Grocery, and serves as a hands-on, outdoor classroom where students and neighborhood teens learn they have the power to control their health and lives. The local youth care for the animals and help grow okra, collard greens, beets, dill and garlic.

As someone who’s just starting to reap the benefits of my own little urban garden, I can’t say enough good things about growing your own fruits, vegetables, and herbs, and if you’d like to know more about what’s going on here in the Milwaukee area to promote urban gardening, check out the Victory Garden Initiative.