Sustainable Hydroponics

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October 9, 2015

Cow Patty Hydroponics that is. Not as a means of plant nutrients, as many will instantly assume. No this enterprising Wisconsin dairy farmer generates all the energy to run a sizable greenhouse hydroponic farm with cow manure.

It all began back in 2002 when the concern over climate change was heating up. John Vrieze started looking at techniques that could lessen the environmental impact of his dairy farms. Along about 2006 when the cost of fuel was through the roof, and Emerald Dairy’s 1600 cows were producing tons of milk, and 50,000 gallons of manure daily. He got the idea that with an anerobic digester he could turn it into bio-fuel and convert that to natural gas. At the time, it went for over $10 a therm.

As any savvy agricultural engineer would, he presented his idea to the proper program in his state. They loved his plan for becoming a carbon neutral farm, and gave him a grant for a quarter of what he needed to buy the digester. The price tag? A cool $1 million for the machine itself. He raised the rest of the total $3 million in funding needed in other ways, including savings and loans.

Awesome, right? But by the time John had the machine on the farm, and finished building the processing plant the following year, the price of bio-fuel had dropped to about $2.50 per therm. It was no longer a profitable way to sell his energy.

Back to the drawing table.

Next he approached the electric company, but they weren’t interested in John’s energy at a reasonable price either. So, Vrieze and his family did a lot of research, and got interested in the possibilities that growing algae presented. The bio-fuel would very easily provide the energy needed for that crop. They worked with a lot of experts from various universities perfecting the algae operation, and along the way one of them wondered why they didn’t try tilapia in the poo processing plant building. The constant 80 degree temperature in there was the perfect environment for them. Time for more research, and testing of ideas.

He also grew catfish, perch, and prawns in his trials. In the end, the tilapia proved to be the most disease-resistant, and economical to raise. As he was studying up on raising fish, naturally growing vegetables hydroponically to clean the water kept popping up, so he decided to try that out too. John also liked the fact that with fish supplying the plant nutrition, his water-based farm would be totally sustainable, as opposed to purchasing chemical nutrients making you reliant on off-farm sources. And then there was the added bonus that his hydroponic produce was organic, because your farm can only be profitable if it provides what the market demands. And organics are in big demand.

The Future Farm is born.

Not that it was a straight, and easy path. He found that organic and hydroponic farmers he approached in the research phase weren’t willing to share much information, and the experts – though they were knowledgeable – only had experience with small operations. The knowledge they shared was no where near what he needed to know to run a large hydroponic farm off-grid. So, he started running his own tests to figure it out. Not all of them worked, but Vrieze is driven by determination.

Today, Future Farm Food and Fuel grows all sorts of lettuce, salad greens, and herbs. They’re still growing algae too, along with tilapia. Produce is mainly sold to restaurants in the area, though some consumer sales appear to be taking place. All water, heat, and energy for the greenhouses and fish comes from the cow manure processing plant on one of the three Vrieze family farms across the road. They also produce solid and nitrogen rich liquid fertilizers, and do consulting with other farms ready to turn their waste manure into energy. Vrieze’s natural gas provides renewable energy for all three farms and 875 homes in the town of Baldwin, Wisconsin.

Why are they growing algae?

Initially, before getting drawn into aquaponic and hydroponic farming, the goal was creating a photo bioreactor and grow a strain of algae that would create oil to produce biodiesel from, but also scrubs CO2 that comes from the production and burning of biomethane. After doing a great deal of research, and learning as much as possible from European sources where bio-fuel production technology is way ahead of what’s happening in the U.S., they started working extensively with Ecogenics Research Center in Tennessee. The most recent mention of Future Farm’s algae bio-fuel project reports that they have 600 gallons of it growing, and are still seeking the best market for it, though there’s no way of knowing how outdated that information on their website is.

The Big Picture

Obviously, John Vrieze has vision, and a very entrepreneurial mind. His journey through this discovery process turned into a whole farm strategy for making use of available resources, making products from a portion of them, and creating an environmentally friendly operation that still produces hundreds of thousand pounds of milk a day, bio-fuels, and organic foods. His approach to sustainable hydroponics is highly inspiring, and while most will have sticker shock at the $3 million invested in the methane digester and it’s supporting technology, you have to remember this is a huge system that can handle 50,000 gallons of manure a day too.

There are those who have built anerobic digesters to make enough energy to run hydroponic and aquaponic systems off-grid. Emerald Dairy isn’t the first to come up with the concept, but the Vrieze operation is the largest I’ve come across yet. For a more budget friendly approach, you might try starting with how The Urban Farming Guys went about it. They’re growing totally off-grid in the inner city somewhere in Kansas, and without any funding from grants. It’s a small time non-profit organization. Look them up on YouTube – their website is currently infected. And then there is The Plant in Chicago, who is also growing hydroponically in the city off-grid, in fact their whole 93,000 square foot facility will be totally sustainable thanks to the anerobic digester. The Plant did get grant money from the city.

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Tammy Clayton

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.
Tammy Clayton

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