Adios Cows – Hello Aquaponics

The climate in dairy farming today is not small farm friendly. It’s a get huge, or get out atmosphere. Faced with taking on massive growth, or changing direction made switching to aquaponics and indoor growing an attractive opportunity for Nate and Mary Calkins. They’re just one of the family farms Big Food is happily squeezing out of the picture. It wasn’t a decision they took lightly. Lake Orchard Farm in Sheboygan, Wisconsin has been in operation through 6 generations on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Not that it’s been a dairy farm since the Civil War.  If the farm is going to stay in the family, you’ve got to have profit. Got to keep up with the times. At one time, the family grew orchard fruits. Later it was chickens and eggs, and the incubation house still stands. But the last 2 generations it’s been cows. Unfortunately, you gotta be big to make a profit on cows – beef, or dairy. Nate couldn’t see taking on the kind of increase in operation that requires now. It was time for something new.

They first learned about aquaponics through an article in a farming magazine a few years ago. Obviously, conventional farming had become unsustainable, but this was sustainable, organic, and gave you harvests all year. It’s also the kind of growing operation that is perfectly suited for small family farms. The Caulkins are very happy they took that fork off the old road. Nate, a structural engineer, couldn’t be more pleased with his new career.

“It’s wonderful,” Nate said. “You’re in a lush environment that’s like the tropics, 365 days a year, with green, oxygen-producing plants everywhere around you. I wouldn’t trade this for the world.” — Sheboygan Press

The Aquaponics Shift

Nate Calkins: Lake Orchard Farm AquaponicsTransitioning from heifers to tilapia doesn’t happen overnight. It calls for some changeover. First, you’ve got to find a new home for the cows, though it would be possible to run both operations at once. Just not when the one is no longer profitable, while the other holds the key to your future on a family farm. Of course, it might be wise to hang onto a few of your milk cows. After enjoying fresh milk all your life, having that still available makes sense, especially when you’ve got the land to do so. It’s more sustainable than buying it!

Next they had to take down a pole barn to make way for the greenhouse next to the shed where the aquaponics system would be. The process began late in the summer of 2014, and by the following March, the greenhouse was going up. That didn’t take long, the baby tilapia arrived in April, and the first crops were planted in June. The leap from conventional farming to high tech growing was complete. Nate handles the aquaponics and fish, Mary takes care of the crops in the greenhouse. Their young son and daughter help out, just like any kids who live on a farm.

Naturally, it’s a Nelson and Pade system – what else would a grower from Wisconsin use? Sheboygan is less than a 2 hour drive from world class aquaponics training, parts, and a knowledge bank that people come from all over the globe to learn from.

Not an Urban Farm

Mary Calkins: Lake Orchard Farm AquaponicsNate and Mary’s farm is about 9 miles from downtown Sheboygan, which isn’t a bustling metropolis. Surrounded by farmland and forest, the city has a population of about 7,200. The entire county has less than 50,000 residents. Neighboring towns are smaller and spread out, though the larger city of Manitowac isn’t too far away, and they do have customers there. Continuous growth, and even regional selling is possible with Milwaukee only about an hour’s drive south, but the Calkins are focusing on selling local. Even people who live in less populated areas see the nutritional and economic value in buying locally grown food.

With a year of growing under their belt, Lake Orchard Farm Aquaponics is a success. The crops have increased in variety. Tomatoes, peppers, kohlrabi, and microgreens are just some of the things they offer in addition to lettuces and greens. Local residents can buy farm direct from a self-service shop in one of the buildings. They also sell their fish and veggie harvests to area markets and chefs, and a distributor who sells their products in the Fox Cities further west.  The restaurants they supply are loving the fact that the produce has less waste than what they used to buy, and that is so fresh.

The operation is profitable enough that Mary has been able to quit her part time job as a counselor in the school system, devoting all her energy to the farm’s various enterprises. They also have a bed and breakfast that offers guests a luxury stay on the lake shore complete with a 9-hole golf course. That addition to farm income was done several years ago by repurposing the old incubation house and a second small home on the property. There are also farm-to-table dinner events and tours, and it will soon have a huge indoor wedding venue when they’re finished fixing up the circa 1900 hay barn.

Inspiring More Change

Other farmers from around the vicinity are super impressed with Nate and Mary’s aquaponics operation. The newspaper notes that one such recent visitor commented that it made a lot more sense to spend $1 million on putting in aquaponics with fish and vegetables growing year around. A heck of a lot smarter than sinking another $4 million into getting his milking parlor big enough to make a profit in the dairy business. Healthier for the local economy, and environment. More sustainable too. Something conventional farming in this day and age totally lacks. Nate hopes it really catches on. It’s a way more enjoyable lifestyle than dairy farming, and produces fresh, super healthy food year around.

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Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine

Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.