Wiltz: A different kind of farm, different kind of fish

As you might know, Betsy and I have a second home in Wisconsin, just outside of Madison. It gives us the opportunity to be closer to two of our daughters and their families. With all of my health issues, Madison's University of Wisconsin hospital...

As you might know, Betsy and I have a second home in Wisconsin, just outside of Madison. It gives us the opportunity to be closer to two of our daughters and their families. With all of my health issues, Madison's University of Wisconsin hospital has also been godsend for me.
In the Madison area, I recently stumbled upon a very interesting farm. If you pulled into this farmyard and saw the two long narrow buildings that lie parallel to each other, you would think confinement buildings. You would be partially correct, but they aren't the typical chicken, turkey, or hog units.

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions in water rather than soil. The operation I recently visited has certainly perked my interest in hydroponics, and I am now curious about what's happening hydroponics-wise on the South Dakota State University campus.

I know very little about tilapia. I first saw them on a restaurant menu about 15 years ago. I became a bit more familiar with tilapia when I observed fishermen in dugout canoes on Africa's Chobe River collecting tilapia in their gill nets. I was fishing for tiger fish at the time. Today, tilapia are becoming increasingly important as a food source.
The temperature in both of these buildings, for both air and water, is carefully controlled. The first building I entered housed two long rows of large plastic tanks full of water. The tanks contained live tilapia of various sizes ranging from fingerlings to fish that might weigh 5 pounds. All the tanks held like-sized fish that graduated in size from one end of the building to the other. The water in the tanks was vigorously circulated, perhaps by air jets.
The second building held long, narrow tanks that were separated by narrow walking paths that permitted access to both sides of the tank. The fish tank water in the first building circulated from tank to tank, and then ran through underground pipes into the tanks of the second building. That water ran through the length of the second building's tanks, and was then reintroduced back into first building's fish tanks. In other words, the same water went round and round.

The tilapia were fed food pellets three times a day. After the evening feeding, the lights were turned off and the fish went to sleep. The vigorously circulated water carried the fish waste nutrients into the waters of the second building where the rich water "fed" the plants of a flourishing greenhouse.
The second building or greenhouse appeared to have its waters covered by sheets of Styrofoam. The Styrofoam surface was a grid of small holes, perhaps a half-inch in diameter, that gave access to the water beneath. Tiny seedlings that were incubated in moist soil were then dropped into the holes where their roots reached the very fertile water. Harvesting the grown plants was simple. They were merely pulled from the holes.

The plants appeared to be various types or varieties of leaf lettuce. What makes this operation go is the ready market for organic foods in Madison, Wisconsin. It appears to me that Madison is very academic because of its sprawling university, and these academics are really into organic foods. This hydroponic farm markets both the greens and the tilapia to specialized Madison stores, where all foods are very pricey.


Last year, I wrote about the Tripp County ranch where I blast away at prairie dogs. That rancher's cattle and hay bales are organic - no pesticides or insecticides. No poisoning prairie dogs! I found it interesting that some of his cattle and hay went to the Madison, Wisconsin, area.

There are two questions in my mind. Since matter can be neither created nor destroyed, does the weight of the fish food coming in equal the weight of the produce shipped out? Wouldn't the water be a constant? Does energy enter the equation? I posed this question at a family affair that included doctors and other scholars, and the theorizing that followed was highly entertaining.

Second question: Could the Sioux Falls area support the hydroponic farm I just described? I don't know. While Sioux Falls does have two small colleges by UW standards, the Sioux Falls environment is totally different than that of Madison. Madison is also twice the size of Sioux Falls, not counting its populated suburbs.

I like progress, but I'll stick with our walleyes and catfish as I'm told that hydroponic foods tend to be tasteless. Madison can have the tilapia.

See you next week.

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