WISCONSIN RAPIDS — Two years ago, Pamela Walker had a vision to start growing vegetables year-round, but she had no intention of owning any ordinary greenhouse.
With this vision, Walker decided to open ColdSnap Aquaponics, a certified aquaponics facility that provides a variety of naturally grown, fresh lettuce, herbs and a few other vegetables year-round for customers in central Wisconsin.
The facility has the capacity to produce 90,000 heads of lettuce annually, with the intent of being able to provide fresh lettuce for local schools, hospitals, restaurants and nearby grocery stores.
One of the biggest struggles is trying to get into new markets.
“As a small farmer, it’s hard for potential customer to understand that other vendors — the competition — hauls in their products by the truckloads with a much higher carbon footprint,” Walker said.
Many people do not know or care where their food comes from but look instead at the product’s price, she said. As a small farmer, it is virtually impossible to compete off price alone. Rather, people need to understand and taste the difference in locally grown lettuce vs. the lettuce they buy at the store that has been shipped hundreds or even thousands of miles.
Planting to harvesting takes about 27 days, and Walker plants her lettuce based off her routine deliveries. By planting based off her orders, she can help minimize lettuce bolt. Bolt is when the lettuce starts to lose flavor and gets ready to form future seeds.
In 2017, Walker planted 45 different varieties of lettuce to test the reactions of consumers and see what varieties people were willing to purchase. In 2018, she minimized her lettuce varieties to three types of romaine, three types of lettuce mixes and three varieties of leaf lettuce. She also plants different varieties of lettuces based off custom orders.
One of the lettuces Walker grew in 2017 was a red lettuce. Red lettuce is important, she said, because it contains antioxidants.
“Antioxidants in red lettuce is the same reason people drink red juices such as cranberry or cherry juice,” she said.
ColdSnap Aquaponics also grows cucumbers. Plants are about one year of age, and the bottoms of the plants must be coiled to ensure new growth continues at the top, where new cucumbers continue to grow.
The farm offers tours for customers so they can understand where their food comes from and for school groups and culinary groups that want to incorporate their products into their kitchens.
Aquaponics requires the integration of fish, which help increase the nutrients that the plants can obtain, creating an all-around ecosystem.
ColdSnap Aquaponics integrated tilapia fish into their aquaponic system. The farm has six large tanks that each hold 250 fish until they are full-grown. Growing a tilapia fish takes about 240 days from hatching, or 34 weeks to reach 16 to 20 ounces. Once the fish are this age, they no longer produce as many nitrates, which is what helps the lettuce grow.
ColdSnap purchases tilapia as fingerlings from a farm in New Mexico and the fish are air shipped to the facility overnight.
The farm raises only male fish because it prevents potential breeding from occurring in the ponds. This ensures that no fingerlings are born in the ponds and dispersed throughout lettuce beds.
Before the fish become fillets, they are moved to a purge tank where they will spend seven to 10 days in water that is flushed two or three times a day; salt is added. This process allows for the fish to lose extra fat, resulting in a less gamy meat flavor. The very last day, the tank temperature is lowered by 10 degrees to 60-64 degrees.
In the future, the farm intends to add a certified kitchen to the facility that will allow them to sell fish fillets at local markets.