“The Good Food Movement is now a Revolution” –
Will Allen, CEO Growing Power
Backyard Aquaponics just released the 10th issue of Backyard Aquaponics Magazine. It is packed with fun and useful information, including an ingenious way to beautify an IBC tote aquaponics system, articles on Koi and a floating food plant called azolla, and an interview with Travis Hughey. To celebrate this latest release, I’m posting the interview that I did with Rick Mueller and that was part of the cover feature for the last issue (#9). Rick runs Growing Power Aquaponics in Milwaukee. Enjoy!
Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wisconsin has been described as Ground Zero for the Urban Farming movement in the U.S. It is a busy three acre site in a place that used to be called Greenhouse Alley, but is now considered a ‘food desert’. They are three miles from the nearest Pick ‘n Save grocery store but only a mile from the largest low-income housing project in Milwaukee. Growing Power CEO, and MacArther Fellowship ‘Genius Grant’ award winner, Will Allen and his team are trying to change all that. Among other things, they use the waste and flesh of 30,000 tilapia and lake perch to produce healthy food to feed 10,000 people in that neighborhood.
In the midst of all of this is Rick Mueller, a quiet, unassuming but passionate man who runs the 50,000 gallons of aquaponic systems that are responsible for half the produce harvested at Growing Power. What follows is an interview with Rick about how he came to be in charge of this incredible aquaponics setup, and what he sees for the future of aquaponics.
Q – What brought you to aquaponics?
Rick – I’ve been an aquarist all my professional life. I had my first fish tank at the age 10 and actually built my first aquaponics system at age 15. My first job offer was to build a fish room for a local pet store. That led me to a wholesale business in tropicals, which led me to opening a store in Milwaukee that sold pond and aquarium plants and supplies. That business was doing very well until the 2001 recession hit and people stopped putting ponds into their backyards.
Q – How did you and Growing Power connect up?
Rick – In February, 2003 Growing Power called and wanted to know if I was interested in buying some extra water lettuce and water hyacinth that they had on hand.
Q – What a minute – those are water plants, not food. Really?
Rick – Yes. Back then Growing Power wasn’t only growing food. They have changed a lot since then. Anyway, they were growing huge water lettuce and water hyacinth, much better than I could get in Florida, and they were using them to filter their fish tanks and selling them as a side business. Soon after that call I lost the lease on my shop and asked them if they would be interested in my equipment. They asked me if I wanted to come to work for them and I’ve now been there for 7 years.
Q – How were you inspired to start growing food plants?
Rick – Will Allen is the inspiration for everything that happens at Growing Power, but nothing happens on its own – everything is a team effort. We have gone through many evolutions of this system, including growing strawberries, but now we grow only salad greens and watercress, not even any tomatoes or peppers.
Q – How much of the output from Growing Power is grown using aquaponics?
Rick – Approximately 50% of the produce grown at the main facility in Milwaukee is grown using aquaponics
Q – What does your average day look like?
Rick – I do two rounds a day when I visit every system – first thing in the morning and before leaving in the evening. I start at one end of the building and check that the pumps are running well, confirm that the fish aren’t on the surface, etc. Then during the day I keep an eye on all the systems, fix problems, and work on figuring out how we are going to go from 50,000 gallons of systems to 70,000, which is our next goal.
Q – What do you think the future of aquaponics in the U.S. is?
Rick – Aquaponics is growing by leaps and bounds, in part because the government is now regulating aquaculture discharge and there is such a focus now on conserving resources.
Q .- What are the possible obstacles you see to Aquaponics’ future growth?
Rick – I see a couple. Because it isn’t familiar growing technology, people are reluctant to make an investment in it. This will slow down the growth of commercial aquaponics. I also see an issue with beginner’s being overly optimistic and investing too much into a big system to start with rather than starting small, learning and growing over time.
Q – What advice do you have for new aquaponic gardeners?
Rick – I found when I ran my store that there were 2 kinds of customers:
- The ones who were successful would ask for advice on building a pond and maybe buy a book in the process.
- Then there were those who came in and asked for a book on building a pond. And another book. And they just kept reading books rather than getting their feet wet. They would get more and more scared about the complexity.
My advice is to put the shovel in the ground and just do it.