Circle of Water, Circle of Life

Central Greens aquaponics operation fuels local demand


Story by Brett Kell
Photographs by Erika Kent


Not all that long ago, the terms “organic,” “green” or “sustainable” would hardly have rolled off the tongues of hardy Milwaukeeans, whose concern for the origins of their food was, at one time, limited to whether it came off a grill or out of a fryer.

This was especially true of the city as it struggled through an identity crisis ushered in by the twilight of its industrial heyday. But things have changed. The last decade has seen Milwaukee’s food culture explode, reflecting more diverse and demanding palates. An increased emphasis by consumers, restaurants, retailers and artisans on where food comes from has meant that “green” has outlasted its use as a buzzword to become a bellwether.

Bowen1People want to eat local and live more simply and sustainably.

One outgrowth of this trend has been the rise of urban farming. Pioneered in Milwaukee by Will Allen in 1993, urban farming has been taken up by others seeking to provide organic, locally-grown food.

One such operation is Central Greens, which opened its doors in March. The company uses aquaponics to grow salad greens and herbs, and to raise tilapia, all of which are sold on site or through arrangements with local grocers and restaurants.

Aquaponics is a sustainable food production system combining aquaculture (raising aquatic animals in a recirculating tank system) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in a nutrient solution) in a symbiotic environment. Wastewater from fish tanks is fed to a hydroponic system where it is filtered by the plants as vital nutrients, after which the cleansed water is recirculated back to the fish tanks. Because Central Greens collects and uses wastewater from routine cleaning of its tanks and filters to irrigate onsite landscaping – all native plants and grasses – it discharges nothing to city sewers.

Growing an idea

Not long after local real estate developers Sheila Firari, Lance DornBrook and Mike Myers purchased the former Story Hill Gardens Nursery site at 51st and Bluemound, a sour housing market forced them to abandon plans to develop condos on the residentially-zoned property.

10th District Alderman Michael Murphy suggested the possibility of building an urban farm. The idea took root.

“There’s no supply out there to sustain the huge demand. We can grow all year, which puts us ahead.”
– Bowen DornBrook,
Central Greens

Lance DornBrook’s son, Bowen, 25, had been studying biology at UW-Milwaukee and nurturing a keen interest in horticulture, aquaculture and hydroponics after working as a volunteer at Growing Power and at Sweetwater Organics, a commercial urban farm that used the same production model pioneered by Allen.

“I was motivated and inspired by the whole aquaponics system as soon as I saw it at Growing Power, but it was important that if we were going to do this, we needed to research and test the system we were thinking of to ensure it would work the way we thought it could,” he said.

The DornBrooks aren’t the first to tackle urban farming in Milwaukee. Growing Power’s Allen, who in 2010 was named one of the World’s Most Influential People by Time Magazine and is a 2008 recipient of a $500,000 McArthur Foundation “genius” grant, has become the international face of urban agriculture and speaks regularly on the subject of food policy. He has grown the nonprofit into a widely recognized model for urban farming and community food systems that trains community members to become smalltime farmers, ensuring their continued access to healthy food.

GreenhouseA shared belief in the value of such food systems led the Central Greens team to ensure they were approaching their project in a way that would ensure profitability. Lance and Bowen spent six months touring aquaponics farms in the Midwest that have had success and longevity. They examined best practices and created a system similar to that used at the University of the Virgin Islands since 1982. A similar model at Alberta Aquaponics in Canada has been in place since the early 1990s. Friendly Aquaponics in Hawaii is another successful operation using a similar system, as is KP Simply Fresh in North Freedom, Wisconsin.

From the ground up, efficiently

After no luck seeking funding from state and federal governments and commercial lenders, Central Greens’ five investor/owner partners – Lance, Kathy and Bowen DornBrook, Myers and Firari – struck a chord with Fund Milwaukee, which provided $30,000 for water quality and monitoring equipment, operating capital to assist the business launch, and marketing. The rest of the estimated $350,000 for constructing the buildings and purchasing equipment came from the owners.

FishTanksDespite the initial cost, Bowen said that a few key factors will allow Central Greens to be financially successful: very low overhead and energy use, high-quality product, and a combination of high demand and numerous sales outlets. The low overhead was created by the owners doing all construction work themselves, cutting the initial investment in half.

“We poured the concrete, installed the plumbing and the radiant heat loops in the hydro tanks, built the greenhouses and main building,” said Bowen. “We’re a family of contractors, so we saved a ton of money doing what we already knew how to do.”

The end result of their careful planning, research and sweat equity is a facility that uses very little energy, so little that Central Greens pays about a fifth of what it would cost per month to use energy from the local power grid. The passive heating and natural light created in its greenhouse environment erase much of the need for powered heating or lighting, while a high-efficiency boiler heats water under the plant beds to an even temperature that is maintained by the plants and surrounding air.

The final ingredient in Central Greens’ recipe for success is its plan to meet high local demand. The team engaged grocers and restaurants to purchase greens, herbs and fish.

FishBowen estimates these outlets will account for about 80% of sales, with the remainder coming from the on-site store.

“The supply is next to nothing locally,” said Bowen. “If you look at market trends and sales of organics over the last 20 years, there’s been an exponential spike.

“There’s no supply out there to sustain the huge demand. We can grow all year, which puts us ahead.”

“It’s hard to go to other areas and find as many outlets for organic foods as we have in Milwaukee,” added Firari. “We have Whole Foods, Outpost, Trader Joe’s, Fresh MarketSendik’s, Grasch’s, and others. People here are more conscious and are willing to pay a little more because those stores are already selling it. The only difference is they’re going to get it from up the street instead of from California or Mexico.”

According to Bowen, Central Greens’ capacity can meet demand – the facility has eight 1,200-gallon tanks that can hold 500-600 fish each, or nearly 200 pounds of filleted product at the end of every three-week life cycle. In addition, the floats in the greenhouse have enough surface area for about 8,000 plants. For instance, if they were all lettuce, the total yield would be eight or nine thousand heads each month. A mixture of leaf lettuces, basil, sage, garlic chives, and other herbs currently fill the greenhouse.

BasilThere are also significant health benefits to eating organic produce grown in an aquaponic system – the vegetables have five times the nutrient density of traditional GMO crops, and significantly longer shelf life, since the roots are left intact when harvested and placed in small bags of water.

“These plants are still alive,” said Bowen. “Not only could you keep them on your kitchen counter and they’ll last five times longer than a cut plant, but you could transplant them into your garden and grow even more.”

To that end, Central Greens will begin offering workshops this month for customers interested in setting up their own small aquaponics system, and will also sell ready-touse systems for around $1,500. In addition to schools and other organizations using these systems as instructional tools and for food production, Bowen suspects that families could also benefit.

“Not only are you able to have a living ecosystem in your basement, backyard or garage, but you get a continuous year-round supply of fish and greens,” he said.

This attitude of empowering others, coupled with a commitment to providing healthy, sustainable food, make Central Greens about more than just vegetables and fish.

“Having farms like ours in urban areas – and providing an accessible supply to ‘food desert’ communities where there might only be a corner store that doesn’t sell produce at all – means that more people can have better food,” said Bowen. “What could be more important than that?”

To learn more about Central Greens, including volunteer opportunities, visit or call (414) 302-9495. Store hours are Monday-Friday, 12-7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11-5 p.m.; with tours on Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 1 p.m.

BrettKellBrett Kell is a freelance writer and communications professional. He has contributed to various publications, websites, and media, and has won awards for feature writing. His poetry has appeared in Emergency Almanac, Paj Ntaub Voice, KNOCK, Clare, Bakka and others, and he’s spent years on a chapbook called “Nonce Words” that might eventually see the light of day. In his spare time, he nurtures a fondness for Milwaukee restaurants, bars and artisans. He also collects watches, drinks scotch, enjoys music, and roots for the Packers. Brett and his wife, Lauren, live in Caledonia with their two children.

ErikaKentErika Kent is a native of Detroit, Erika earned her BFA from the University of Michigan’s School of Art and Design. In 1997, she packed up her Ford Escort, popped in a mix tape, and moved to Milwaukee. After thirteen years as Vice President of, and then consultant to Ten Chimneys (the National Historic Landmark house museum in Genesee Depot, WI), Erika stepped down from her nonprofit arts administration career and leaned into her continuing work as a photographer and arts and culture blogger.

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