Milwaukee’s Visionaries Face Skeptics in the News
April 30, 2012 § 4 Comments
Last year, we introduced you to Sweet Water Organics, a hybrid company (read: for-profit and non-profit) that is trying to develop a viable urban farm using aquaponics. They’re one of the first aquaponic farms in the country, drawing inspiration from operations like Growing Power. Recently, Tom Daykin of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran an article about Sweet Water that reads like a bullet-point list of charges against the company.
The article’s focus is a $250,000 loan Sweet Water received from the City last spring, and its allegations against Sweet Water include a failure to pay its employees on time and to generate the hiring numbers that were tied to the loan. The angle the article takes comes down to a very basic question: “whether city tax dollars should have been given to Sweet Water, a start-up firm that has drawn national praise as part of the sustainable farming movement.” Ultimately, the answer Tom Daykin arrives at is a flat-out “no.”
Daykin attempts to link the confirmation bias of aldermen and City Council members to their approval of Sweet Water’s loan. He does this artfully, suggesting the entire movement is at once naive and corrupt:
“Sweet Water deserves city financing because of its role in growing Milwaukee’s urban agriculture industry, which means more jobs, environmental benefits and a more secure food supply,” said Ald. Tony Zielinski, who sponsored the legislation to provide the loan.
Zielinski said he hadn’t known about the employees who had left the company last year because of unpaid wages. But even if he had known, Zielinski said, he still would have supported the loan request.
The thrust here is to equivocate government spending with government waste, and, oh yeah, to remind us that green initiatives are stupid. It brings to mind every conservative pundit who talks about Solyndra as if it’s this unlimited source of “I told you so” about green initiatives. Except Daykin isn’t writing an opinion piece, so he needs to slide these premises into a news article in the form of “facts,” some of which are debatable, others simply contradictory.
For example, as Daykin explains the process leading up to Sweet Water’s loan from the city, he describes the reaction from Milwaukee development department analyst Yves LaPierre: “LaPierre also said Sweet Water was proposing to spend most of the funds on its operations. He said similar city development loans usually financed capital investments, such as new buildings.” This would seem to suggest that Sweet Water had benefited from preferential treatment in the vetting process, and yet indeed, if you scan the line items for Sweet Water’s loan proposal, virtually every item is for exactly that: capital investment, ranging from “acquisition of tractors for production” to “construction of climate-controlled vegetable sprout production room” to “7 covered specialized greenhouses.”
Not salaries, as Daykin suggests.
To be fair, it’s not that Daykin lied: perhaps the original loan proposals sought to cover operating costs. But those weren’t the ones the city approved. And he leaves the reader thinking the city approved this totally unprecedented loan because of its naive or corrupt (or both) aldermen, singling out Tony Zielinski:
“This is a slam dunk,” Zielinski said then. “These people are visionaries. They’re coming to the city for help, and I think we should help them. I just don’t understand anybody who could disagree with that.”
We can acknowledge the possibility that Sweet Water failed to meet a particular timeline, or even the possibility that it will fail as a business in the future–for don’t all businesses run this risk? We can even acknowledge the possibility that the Common Council made a hasty decision to approve their loan. But we refuse to judge Sweet Water or the broader movement toward sustainable cities simply on the basis of what’s possible. On the other hand, Tom Daykin’s and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s rush to judgement speaks volumes about its eagerness for this movement to fail.
Down to the Root
Could it be that aquaponics is a great idea whose time has not yet arrived?
Sweet Water Organics Inc. may have trouble providing as many full-time jobs as projected when it received a city loan. Nevertheless, we owe Sweet Water gratitude for pioneering this industry in Milwaukee and encouraging other start-ups.
It is through trial and error that the efficiencies needed for aquaponics to be financially sustainable will be uncovered. Thank you, Sweet Water, and thanks, Milwaukee, for allowing the experiment.
Urban Aquaculture Center
As far as I’m concerned, Bales hits the nail on the head. Cities like Milwaukee are in a precarious position: some people believe former industrial centers (Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Cleveland, etc.) are never going to bounce back from the recession, and instead will continue to decline even after cities like New York and San Francisco have economically recovered. The fundamental premise of this blog and the movement it belongs to is that not only will our cities bounce back, but they will solve the problems other cities will never slow down enough to fully consider. Problems like a food system that kills the planet; problems like a population disconnected from their work, their neighbors, their food, and their democracy.
But the cities poised to make a change have to recognize this and embrace the risks involved in jump-starting brand new initiatives, industries and ideas. Sweet Water is a great example of that. They are visionaries of this movement and they are on the ground making it happen. They are taking the problem of an enormously unsustainable food system and building an industry out of the solution; and all of this within an abandoned warehouse! They utilize volunteer labor (of which I’ve gladly been part), a horizontal system of governance, and a nonprofit structure to help educate their locale about the wonders of a science they’re helping innovate. That’s the recovery I want to live in.
There are necessarily going to be missteps along the way. And Tom Daykin’s skepticism about Sweet Water could be useful if it approached its allegations of exploitation of taxpayer dollars and unaccountability in City politics from a more constructive perspective (and if it weren’t so curmudgeonly). If indeed there was wrongdoing, then those responsible will be held responsible. But none of this means that Milwaukee (or the Midwest generally) has no need for creative solutions to its enormous problems. Sweet Water’s work is still part of that solution. A wholesale indictment of Sweet Water and its supporters on the Common Council from the largest newspaper in southeastern Wisconsin is not going to make Milwaukee any healthier or more sustainable.
To illustrate the depth of positivity and vision emanating from the Sweet Water folks, I asked James Godsil, co-founder of Sweet Water Organics, to write a piece for MSCS about his vision for Milwaukee. Happily, he replied with this.
The point is that Milwaukee has the ingredients to completely reshape the way cities eat, work, and thrive in the 21st century. There are people here who understand the task before them and who are elated that it has fallen at their feet. We’re passionate, dedicated, and hard-working enough to make these things happen.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has no idea what folks like Godsil are even talking about, and it unfortunately sees the world through an extremely myopic lens where the futures of both the city and the planet have nothing to do with the innovations going on right under their noses. The MSCS wishes them good luck. They’re going to need it.
Peter Murphy, Co-Founder