Up in the frozen tundra of this year’s Wisconsin winter, there’s a micro-climate of lush and green, sheltered beneath arches of steel supporting strong but delicate plastic film—a flexing skin that allows the light to enter but holds back the snow and cold. The land of aquaponics flourishing below, with tilapia swimming in their tanks and fresh greens reaching for the sun, is now well into its second year of production on our farm.
The clank of the door latch in the morning excites the first tank of fish, which glide to the surface and splash playfully. “Breakfast, we want breakfast!” The morning sunshine is sparkling on the water, and the air is moist and rich with oxygen—a stark change from the cold, snappy-dry environment outside.
Lately, we’ve been spending considerable time in the aquaponics greenhouse, tending to fish and plants, yes, but also because of building and starting new projects within the protective plastic walls as well. Investing in such a heated space to allow for local, natural, and bio-secure foods to be grown right here all year has been a major financial leap for us, which means that every corner and cranny is ripe with the possibility for adding something that will grow more food.
Clay pots neatly tucked under the edge of the table-high NFT (Nutrient Film Technology) channels sport vigorous bushes of thyme, parsley, sage, lavender, cilantro, and edible violas. Other pots commanding sunny locations hold thick-stemmed tomato plants that have grown chest-high. Several times each day, I get to play “honey bee” with a vibrating pollination wand that shakes the clusters of canary-yellow blossoms. Already the labors are showing there merit as a few little green tomatoes are beginning to form! This is February—somebody pinch me!
Starting last summer, our Media Bed System (which utilizes the solid nutrients from the fish) began sludging up with too much material, flooding the beds and pulling down their side walls in a cascade of water and clay BBs that rushed across the cement floor towards the drain. After a few relapses of this catastrophe, we knew that this piece of the system required an overhaul.
Following weeks and weeks of washing the clay pebbles by the colander-fulls and stocking the nutrient rich water in five-gallon jugs for the garden in spring, we were able to modify the side walls of the media beds, return the washed pebbles, and begin growing crunchy radishes, peppery arugula, and juicy beets again.
But it was apparent that the reservoir of solid-rich fish water siphoned for the media beds could serve a much larger growing area. Eager to expand the winter tomato, pepper, and brassica production, we applied creative engineering with PVC pipe and hanging-basket brackets to rig a platform and irrigation structure for a new Dutch Bucket system along the east wall walkway. Customarily used in hydroponic production (which employs chemical fertilizers rather than our tilapia friends), Dutch Buckets are a series of square, black pails filled with growing media. Water drips in from above and then exits through a pipe below, allowing excess water to return to the reservoir to be recycled.
With 30 new mini-pots to plant, we’re trying heirloom tomatoes, broccoli raab, Napa cabbage, kale, green and red peppers, and trellising cucumbers. After a few hiccups (overflowing buckets, plugged drain spigots, fish scales in the water line), our new system holds vigorous and healthy plants eager to outdo their potted neighbors. At times it seems you can watch them grow! While the project is still in its experimental phase, already we are looking around our space, wondering where to expand with another length of Dutch Buckets. Maybe over here would be a great spot for kohlrabi!
Our fodder-growing system has also been a happy success. Sprouting wheatgrass from spring wheat for the chickens, ducks, and turkeys not only augmented their diets all year but also improved their behavior and health. During butchering last year, we noticed phenomenally fewer heart and liver problems amongst the Cornish-cross chickens and standard white turkeys (both of which, because they are bred to grow fast, can often suffer in these areas). Their skin was healthy and well-colored, there was more uniformity of size, and their insides smelled sweet and fresh—like fodder.
This has spurred us to increase our fodder-growing operation so that our fun new Kunekune pigs as well as our beloved sheep can enjoy this nutrient-dense feed all year as well. Again using creative engineering, a good deal of PVC glue, and a mobile wire shelving system, we’re growing from our original 12 trays to an additional 30. Stacked in levels of five trays across, the little spring wheat shoots reach for the sky, happy to turn water and sunlight into tasty, homegrown feed for healthy, happy livestock.
Sprouts are also delicious and healthy for people as well, which bring us to our third major new project in the greenhouse this winter. Eventually, we can consign some of the fodder trays for sprouting, but for starters we’re learning the trade in a couple of seedling trays with a light layer of crunchy, white vermiculite. To start the adventure, we chose the dwarf gray sugar pea.
The instructions said that a standard seedling tray would require two cups of seed (yes, sprouting does require quite a volume of seed), soaked in water overnight before planting. Well, those seeds loved their water bath, and they swelled…and swelled…and swelled to bursting. They puffed up so much that there was no way two cups were going to fit into one tray! We grabbed a second tray and some more vermiculite and split the bucket’s worth in half. There’s always a learning curve in farming.
Diligently misting with the sprayer hose, I watched over two weeks as white tendrils reached down into the medium, pushing the peas upwards. Then from the same exit, little white nubbins began to reach upwards. Slowly, the nubbins turned to green, then to leaves, then to leaves with stems, and then the addition of mini curling tendrils. They smell fresh and sweet, like a springtime garden. Now five-and-a-half inches tall, they’re just perfect for harvesting for this week’s CSA shares. And they taste just like pea pods, perfect for salads, sandwiches, stir fries, and more!
It’s deliciously exciting in the aquaponics greenhouse this year, planting, harvesting, tending to the fish, but also expanding the operation in new and exciting ways. Missing fresh greens from your garden this winter? Come on over to Farmstead Creamery to pick up a tasty piece of the new project we’ve been sprouting in the greenhouse. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com