Grow Local: Bringing Aquaponics and Sustainable Farming to the Fox Valley

Grow Local Greenhouse

Inside the greenhouse at Grow Local. (WhooNEW/Zak Bruss)

If you’re looking for what’s been called the best produce and fish in Northeast Wisconsin, look no further.  Grow Local, a farm based in Neenah, is committed to using innovative, sustainable practices to deliver local restaurants the best food possible.

WhooNEW’s Zak Bruss and I jumped at the chance to tour Grow Local and chat with co-founders Steve Catlin and Alex Fehrenbach.  We didn’t get to meet the other co-founder, Calvin Andersen, but we’re sure he’s just as awesome.

The produce we saw was mostly lettuce and some seedlings (since it was still unbelievably cold just a few weeks ago), but it made our mouths water.  And Steve and Alex are incredibly passionate about their work.  If anyone can grow perfect food, they can.

During a tour last month, we were able to ask them about how they do it.

WhooNEW Q&A With Alex and Steve of Grow Local

Roxy: So what are you growing right now?

Alex: This is largely just different varieties of lettuce here.  So we have a butterhead lettuce, a red butterhead lettuce, endive, radicchio, a little bit of romaine, another red leaf variety.  And then we have some other tests going on, like this peppermint.

Steve: Right now we’re gearing up to change crops for the summertime.  All of this stuff survives really nicely in the winter but won’t do well when it warms up.  So we have a whole lot of basil planted, and then we’re gonna to try to do the mint.  Should be good.  We’re trying for some other things in here. Last summer we did tomatoes and peppers and basil and cucumbers.

Lettuce Three

Look at that gorgeous lettuce.

Roxy: Do you buy seeds, seedlings?

Steve: We do almost everything from seed which tends to work very well for us.  Stuff like the mint, and we’re trying a little stevia, that has to grow from cuttings because it doesn’t grow true to seed.

Our mushrooms are from spawn.  We haven’t been able to do any of those from spore yet, but that should be exciting still.  Last year we did a couple varieties of oyster mushrooms in the garden right amongst the plants.  We’re expanding this a bit; this year we’ve started some mushrooms indoors which have actually so far worked out pretty well.

We’ll be having some oyster mushrooms in the garden again.  Now we’re also doing king stropharia, which some people also know as wine cap or even garden giant mushroom.  It’s a nice burgundy cap.  That should be beautiful.  People get pretty excited about the mushrooms.

Alex: They grow right with the plants.

Steve: Right in the shade of them, in fact.  They help make the environment better for the mushrooms, and then the mushrooms make the soil better for the plants.

Roxy: So each part of your system is helping out another part of your system.

Alex: Exactly.

Steve: That’s the idea.

Grow Local Sign

Grow Local’s awesome wooden sign.

Roxy: I know you said mushrooms this summer; what else are you going to grow this time around?

Alex: One of the biggest things that you’re learning is that you want to try and stagger your harvests, so you want to be harvesting constantly.  So right now we’ve got some carrots that we just put the seeds in out there.  We’ve got kale, and then we’re going to put some radishes in and some lettuce.  And those are going to take about a month.

Steve: And some over-wintered spinach.  There’s a long list, but it’s a lot of sort of garden crops, like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, tomatillos.  A whole bunch of that stuff that we’re growing basically just all in communities, because there are plants that help other plants, like plants that repel pests.

So we have a lot of those sort of coordinated together.  But then we have short-run plants.  So we’ll see.  We’re trying to make it more intensive to prove that you can make an economically viable model out of small-scale farming that can be really, really high-production.

Roxy: How does it taste?

Alex: It’s good. Incredible.

Roxy: Best food ever?

Alex: Yeah. There’s nothing like eating something that you’ve grown by yourself.  Pretty good feeling.

Steve: Additionally, we were trying to do stuff as late into the winter as we could.  As you know, that just makes spinach and lettuce really sweet and flavorful.  We’ve just been blown away by how good those things turned out and so have the restaurants that we’ve been selling to, so that’s good.

Alex: It’s also a really great feeling is having a chef tell you that something is the best they’ve ever had.  That’s an incredible feeling.

Roxy: So you guys developed this business right after college.

Alex: Right.

WhooNEW’s Roxy Bruss with Grow Local co-owner Alex Fehrenbach.

Roxy: I read one of you guys was a geography major?

Alex: That’s me, yeah.  Things become pretty apparent when you’re a geography major because for me geography is the study of everything.  It’s the study of how humans interact with humans, how humans interact with the landscape.  And it just becomes really, really apparent how we’ve kind of been doing things inappropriately, things that can’t last forever for the last fifty to one hundred years.

To me, this was the most active pursuit of using that knowledge – creating a system that could last forever and effect people.  To me, it was kind of an obvious end to my degree.  But I also like business.

Roxy: How did you get started on this project specifically?

Alex: My partner and I, Calvin Anderson, went to school together at UW-Madison and we were learning about all the things that were wrong with the current agricultural system and we saw Will Allen in Milwaukee with Growing Power have a lot of success.  We decided we wanted to do something that was meaningful and effect people’s lives.

Everybody eats, so we decided to start this business as a model of agriculture that can be replicated and can be built on a small scale and a large scale, in local communities.  We’re trying to bring positive food and interaction into the community.  So we built a system that can produce sustainably indefinitely.

That’s kind of what permaculture is, which is this up and coming field of design where you just basically try and create sustainable systems economically, environmentally and socially.  A socially just business, but one that’s economically viable.

Our first growing season was last summer.  We designed the whole system, built the greenhouse, did all the plumbing. We finished construction by about March of last year.

A Look at the System

Checking out the aquaponics system.

Roxy: The system is – I was reading a little bit about it – aquaponics, right?  Tell me a little bit about that.

Alex: Aquaponics – take the two words, aqua and ponics.  Ponics is the soil-less medium growing, like hydroponics, so instead of growing in soil, you’re growing the roots right in the water.  These plants aren’t in any soil – their roots are just hanging right in the water.  This water is nutrient-rich water because of the fish.  Aqua is aquaculture, which is the raising of fish.

Roxy: Is this something new?  Have people done this before?

Alex: People have done this for thousands and thousands of years.  Modern aquaponics took off in the sixties or seventies when fish farmers were looking for ways to create systems that they wouldn’t have to just dump the waste.

Basically we’re taking the fish waste and turning it into fertilizer for the plants, and it recirculates back, cleaning the water for the fish, so we use less water and we don’t use any inputs for the plants.

Roxy: How many fish do you have?

Alex: About twenty-five hundred bluegill.  We just had our first harvest of bluegill about two weeks ago.  We raised them from two inches up to eight and half inches.  Then we sold them to a local restaurant.

Grow Local Fish

Looking at the fish.

Roxy: Did you get to eat any?

Alex: Yeah. It was delicious.

Roxy: How did you find out about aquaponics?

Alex: We just kind of went on the Internet.  There’s books on it.  And Wisconsin’s actually one of the hubs of this kind of technology.  Wisconsin’s always been kind of a fore-runner in a lot of agricultural fields.  Milwaukee has a lot of businesses popping up now with this model.  So we toured as many facilities as we could, talked to as many experts in the field as we could, compiled the information, and designed the system based on that.

Roxy: And from what I understand, this expands your growing season, correct?

Alex: Yeah, absolutely.  One of our best-looking harvest this winter was the first week of January, which was the coldest week of the year.  We put a lot of time and effort into designing this space, so it doesn’t make sense to not grow all year round if we can.

Roxy: Can you walk me through the process of how this is more sustainable than average farming?

Alex: We use about 90% less water because the water is being recirculated, so the only water we’re really using is through evaporation and through what the plants take up.  We’re utilizing a waste stream from our fish instead of dumping that into some kind of water treatment plant or letting in run off into the lakes.  We’re reusing those nutrients.

We’re able to grow all year round, so we’re growing fresh produce that doesn’t need to be shipped.  We sell almost wholly in our local community.

Grow Local Co-owners with WhooNEW's Roxy Bruss

From left to right: Alex Fehrenbach, Steve Catlin, and Roxy Bruss.

Steve: We try to buy as much as we can locally.  For the garden outside, we use as much permaculture methods as we can, which allows us not to use chemicals there.  We collect waste streams to compost for the soil in the garden.  We’re ever-striving for greater sustainability, which I think is the best we could hope for.

Alex: We’re going to divert about ten tons of food waste this year to our compost pile.  So we just collect food waste from a local restaurant, which is now fresh and then also coffee grounds from local coffee shops. And we use that in the garden.

Steve: And we’re trying to ramp that up quite a bit.  It’d be great if we could use about three or four times that.  It all come in steps.

Roxy: How do people get your food?

Alex: We sell extensively to restaurants right now.  In the summertime, though, we’ll be going to the farmer’s market, which is a good time.

Steve: We’ll be at the Neenah farmers’ market this summer.

Alex: Also the town of Menasha farmers’ market and Kimberly.

Steve: Oh, I forgot about that.  So we’ll be kind of busy.

Alex: We sell largely to Zuppas, which is right next door, like a hundred yards that way, which is a great relationship.  And we’ve also sold to the Kangaroost up in Kaukauna and a couple other restaurants here in town.


More scrumptious lettuce.

Roxy: Why is your food better for people than average food?

Alex: I don’t know if it’s better. I mean, we think it’s better.  We think it has more value.  I’m not going to bad-mouth someone else’s food.  What I’m trying to say is that we do have a lot of qualities and characteristics in our food that make it valuable and make it better for you.

It’s being picked at its peak freshness, because we don’t have to ship it anywhere.  It’s maintaining better quality, it’s maintaining better nutrients.  It might be healthier for you.  It’s more sustainable.

Steve: Additionally, how we’ve been talking about our growing methods and our philosophy, we don’t put anything on the food as far as chemicals are concerned.  I think a lot of people care about that as well as being able to form a relationship with us to trust that we’re actually doing what we saying.  They can come and visit the farm and check it out.

Alex: That’s a central tenet of our business is being in the community where people can view you and understand what’s going on and where their food is coming from.  That’s how people make a connection with your business and make a connection with their food, and that’s what we’re really trying to do.

Grow Local Outdoor Stage Gardens

Those gardens used to be the stage at Cranky Pat’s Pizzeria.

Steve: It is exciting to go direct; actually talk to the person that’s going to be eating it, preparing it.  We’ve had some friends that work with reselling in different ways, but we’ve kind of opted out.  We’re more interested in going direct where we can offer better prices and we can get a better payback as well as helping people learn about where their food comes from and getting them used to being able to figure that out.  You can contrast that with a lot of the things you’ll find at a larger supermarket.

Roxy: Have you thought about doing a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture)?

Alex: You know, it’s a nice model.  For us, it wasn’t really in our cards, because we didn’t know what we were going to produce the first year, so we didn’t feel comfortable taking people’s money ahead of time and then saying, I’m sorry, we didn’t know how our aquaponics system worked.  I think in the future, it’s something that we might look at.  But it just didn’t make sense for us this first year.

Roxy: In what ways are you looking to expand?

Steve: We see this as a pilot project here.  We’re looking at expanding a couple ways.  One, actually just expanding in volume of production.  We’re doing that already this year with producing more than last year.

But additionally, we’ll be acquiring some more land and trying to serve the community’s needs for our product better.  We’re not trying to exceed the needs of the community, cause that’s where we’d have to start selling it to people outside the community.  But we’d rather just have people start farms there.

Also, we’re trying to kind of expand our position in the public eye, like on a commercial space where you don’t have to go very far to find us.  People might just be walking by to get a coffee or whatever, or a head of lettuce.  So I guess in a couple ways that’s how we’re looking at expanding.

Grow Local Greenhouse Rear

Another look at the greenhouse.

 Alex: We’re also looking to help other people design systems that are kind of similar to this.  Right now we’re potentially designing some permaculture systems for restaurants that are interested in doing these things.

And we’re interested in finding other people who are interested in doing the same things and helping them design these systems so that the community becomes this kind of living, eating, growing space.

 Steve: For instance, somebody maybe in another part of the state, like Steven’s Point, or even out of the state, if they see what we’re doing and see that we’re having success, they can work with us and we can help them design the system, come up with a business plan, and help them with their marketing.  There’s a lot of enthusiasm about small farming, small-scale and local and chemical free.  But still there’s a lot of people that can’t.

 It’s hard to make a business for a lot of people.  That’s where we want to come in and help people who don’t have a lot of experience, don’t have a lot of capital, be able to just go after that.

Like Steve says, it’s hard to start a business, especially one as inspiring and innovative as Grow Local.  So if you’re as impressed as we are, make sure to look for their produce at a local restaurant or farmers’ market!

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