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September 15, 2019

9/5/2019 3:09:00 PM
Local couple's mid-life adventure into alternative ag

Not far from Chisago County’s Fish Lake Park, tucked in the pines off a gravel road, is a futuristic gleaming aluminum and glass farming operation.  A hot house protects four tanks of tilapia fish, which aren’t being marketed at this time, but the fish are a key element of an aquaculture system supporting crops of lettuces and vegetables, you will find at area farmers’ markets and a couple of grocers.  

There’s no dirt in this alternative agricultural world.  

The tilapia tanks are step one in a sterile enclosed system that calls for a visitor to scrub her hands clean at a sink and stop for a few seconds on a disinfecting shoe mat before stepping inside.  
Nutrients in the fish waste are given time to dissolve, and are managed for pH, ammonia, nitrate-nitrite balance, at a desired 74 or-so degree water temp.  

The fish tank water is further processed by bacteria as it makes its way through pipes to the lettuce nursery.  Rafts of floating lettuce put their roots down and find food nutrients arriving from the fish area.

Burbling tanks and a network of pipes fill the other half of the building; a hydroponic jungle of climbing cukes and tomatoes grows directly out of a different supply of water.   

There’s a bathtub sized container that supports a layer of clay spheres  (a special absorbent growing media) for yet another produce growing method.   

Jerry and Theresa Musielewicz are the people behind this enterprise, called Better Future Farm or BFF.  
He is the engineering and mechanics wiz and she wears production control and materials manager hats.  She picks-up baby fish at the airport, keeps meticulous charts and analyzes data, and Theresa is who you will meet at the markets.

And her thing is microgreens -- a completely separate side of the BFF operation.  Microgreens have been around for years but they are a relatively custom style of crop.  A Women’s Health magazine article recently touted microgreens as a natural way to get all sorts of vitamins and antioxidants and even fiber-- without consuming pounds and pounds of mature vegetables.  They are harvested after they germinate, just as the first set of leaves appears. They resemble sprouts but much smaller, finer and tastier.

You can clearly taste the pea, the broccoli, the mustard, radish that the microgreen would have become if left to grow for weeks.

 Theresa and Jerry work as a team when it comes to testing growing systems, tracking which plant families do well in the no-soil conditions and even seeing what tastes best.

 Lucky for us-- Jerry and Theresa make it so you don’t have to travel any further than Lindstrom Farmers Market or Bruce’s Foods in Wyoming, to see what they have come up with.  

And, his time of year when people are heading back indoors and germ pools begin overlapping, the health benefits attributed to microgreens could be invaluable.  Toss them in with eggs, on top of a salad or tuck a few into a sandwich.

Under large scale farming practices, the negative impacts of tilling soil and having it blow away, or field run-off disappearing in a downpour need to be reduced.  While, many farmers are to be congratulated for using lower impact methods of farming-- there are consumers who search out even more advanced techniques, such as BFF offers in enclosed inter-related systems.  Theresa said she knows BFF’s mission is not for everybody, “We are selling to people who care where their food comes from,” she said.

Theresa and Jerry were at a point in their lives, with children grown and out on their own, and lots of space on a parcel in Fish Lake Township that they were open for doing something dramatically new and meaningful.

Jerry thoroughly enjoys education and working with an upcoming generation of manufacturing leaders through Pine Tech.  He appreciates translating his manufacturing technology experience from the real world.  He also likes being part of an effort where postsecondary learning communities, unions and government are cooperating on successful workforce programs.  Theresa is grateful there’s no daily commute and her paycheck depends on her doing something that matters.

To learn more you can look into a class Jerry teaches, this session is being offered at Pine Tech, September 10 to 17, 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on aquaponics.  There’s a tour of an operation Sept. 18.

See the bffaquaponics.com website, click on the “Blog” and scroll down to the class description paragraph.
Registration details are there.

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