MEQUON — A local college is experimenting with a system allowing them to grow and harvest crops through the winter.
Concordia University's Center for Environmental Stewardship is currently operating an indoor aquaponics lab. Aquaponics is a type of farming using fish to supply nutrients for plants.
"That's part of this," Mark Schmitz, Director of the Center for Environmental Stewardship said. "To have a harvestable product that can be eaten and enjoyed."
Essentially, a giant water tank filled with about 150 walleye consume food and produce waste. That waste is filtered out and mixed with bacteria to create nutrient-rich water. The water is then pumped into another tank and it feeds seedlings that grow into full heads of lettuce. The water is cleaned through the process and goes back into the original fish tank.
"Our system is zero discharge which means we're never discharging any waste product into the environment or sewer system or anything like that," Schmitz said. "In other systems, [the water] is wasted. That is a high strength nutrient flowed in there. That's what we want to keep in the system because it will eventually feed our plants."
The system is indoors. So even on these snow-covered, below-freezing days in Wisconsin, they're actively growing crops.
"You have year-round production," Schmitz said. "You can stagger your lettuce production so you can be harvesting something every month or every couple of weeks. This would be faster because we can have ideal conditions, ideal temperatures, and ideal nutrient application and no pests and things like that."
It also lends a solution to a problem the United Nations is already concerned with. They estimate the world population will grow to over 9 billion people by 2050. So providing food may be additional stress on the planet since they guess food production will need to increase by 70 percent.
The aquaponics lab at Concordia is very small with just three tanks to grow food. But they think it shows an example of how this process could pay dividends in the future.
"We can produce around 2,500 heads of lettuce a year," Schmitz said. "That's something we're excited about and working with our cafeteria to offer our students fresh, locally grown produce right on campus here."
Schmitz also hopes larger-scale versions of this process could lower emissions and have great environmental impacts. The theory is, if cold-weather states can locally produce crops typically grown in warm weather states, emissions for transportation will go down.
"A lot of agriculture right now is not sustainable," Anghelo Gangano, a senior at Concordia said. "There's all sorts of news about meat being the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas effects and emissions and that sort of thing. What we have here is a system that requires far, far less environmental emissions and greenhouse gases. It's financially competitive against that sort of thing."
"Food production and a growing world population, we have to think about raising more food on less space and less nutrients," Schmitz said. "This seems to be even more of the future of agriculture."