Aquaponics farm closed, farmer hopes to restart it

Aquaponics farm closed, farmer hopes to restart it
MICHAEL BURKE mburke@journaltimes.com, January 11, 2012

**FILE PHOTO** Johanna "Jo" Hearron-Heineman of Natural Green Farms, LLC., picks butterhead lettuce in an indoor hydroponics warehouse on Wednesday, April 12, 2010. Natural Green Farms grows lettuce and raises fish on the third and fourth floors of the former J.I. Case Plow Works building, 615 Marquette St. in Racine, Wis. Natural Green Farms uses waste nutrients from their tilapia fish farm to fertilize their lettuce operation, which can grow 7,000 heads of butterhead lettuce every 35 days. Lettuce from Natural Green Farms is used at the Summit Restaurant, the Corner House and at local Sentry grocery stores. / File photo Scott Anderson scott.anderson@journaltimes.com Buy this Photo at jtreprints.com

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RACINE — A novel aquaponics operation that grew indoor lettuce and fish is finished, at least for the foreseeable future.
However, Natural Green Farms co-owner Joe Heineman said Monday he holds hope of restarting the operation within a year or two, with a new system he’s devised.

Growing operations at 615 Marquette St., an old industrial building, actually ended in September or October, Heineman said. That’s when heat killed two successive weekly lettuce crops — and when his main investors turned off the tap. “We ran out of money,” he said.

But Heineman waited awhile to let the legal dust settle a bit, then assess. “I think we’re just shutting down,” he said.

The Bristol man, who has gone back to truck driving for now, started his improvised aquaponics system with fish. He built his first tilapia-raising system without consultants, for about $30,000.

Then he decided to use the fish waste as plant fertilizer. He and his wife, Jo Heineman, started raising lettuce and added basil toward the end of the business.

By far, their biggest cost was energy. Producing 1,000-1,500 heads of lettuce weekly, electricity cost about 75 cents a head, Joe Heineman said.

When they got to 4,500-5,000 heads weekly, just before the two crop failures, he said, electric cost had dropped to 20 cents a head.

“I figured when we got to 4,500 to 5,000 heads a week, we would be profitable,” he said. “And we’d just got to that point and landed some big accounts.”

But with no lettuce to sell and his main investors unwilling to put more cash in, the farm was finished.

However, Joe Heineman said, “I’m not giving up. What I’ve learned over the four years, the next system I’m working on, we’ll get the electricity down to 10 cents a head.”

And he said they can guard against heat failures just by growing lettuce below the top floor.

“It would have made a big different on the third floor,” he said. “We probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Building owner Rick Olson sounded willing to entertain thoughts of the Heinemans trying again — despite water damage to floors from leaking fish tanks.

“It’s a grand idea,” he said. “It’s one of the better ideas I have ever come across. But without a financier ... they’re kind of in limbo.”

Olson noted, “Farmers have crop insurance. They didn’t.”

Investment is the key to unlocking any Natural Green Farms future, Olson continued, saying, “I don’t know a guy who works harder than Joe. And I’m a firm believer that hard work eventually pays off.”

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