These former grain farmers now harvest produce and tilapia from their Wisconsin greenhouse all year long—with no soil required.
Once grain farmers, they now harvest produce and tilapia.
We are Tim and Bonny Goodenough from Mindoro, Wisconsin. Our kids are Boston, 23; Kessler, 17; Wyndsor, 15; and Elly, 13. And our farm is Floating Gardens. We operate an environmentally controlled greenhouse where we grow produce aquaponically—without soil—all year long. Our primary crop is leafy greens (aka fancy lettuce). We also grow kale, Swiss chard, eggplant, tomatoes, purple beans and herbs, and sell tilapia—the fish that fertilize the water for our plants. We believe aquaponics will be the new face of farming because it is sustainable and healthy and can supply more food per acre than traditional farming.
We started this in late 2016 after spending 20 years as grain farmers. Our operation is on my husband’s family farm in the west-central part of Wisconsin, where they raised dairy, hogs and beef for three generations before us.
Coping with Caterpillars and Small Fry
Aug. 1 Our routine started with feeding the hungry tilapia by
7 a.m. We also dumped clarifiers (the equipment that cleans the water used by fish), planted seeds and washed rafts. They’re 2-by-4foot pieces of insulation that float on the water and provide platforms for growing lightweight produce such as lettuce. When I returned home from delivering lettuce to local stores, our routine turned upside down. A customer had complained about a caterpillar in a head of lettuce. After conferring with one of the industry’s top producers, we decided to recall the lettuce I had just delivered and dump the lettuce in our rafts.
Aug. 2 Tim and I headed out in different directions to recall lettuce and talk to customers about why we were dumping product. Later we analyzed the produce we had retrieved for signs of caterpillars, and then spent the rest of the day dumping 3,600 heads of lettuce and washing rafts.
Aug. 3 After a hearty breakfast, we all headed to our greenhouse, which is actually four greenhouses joined together, with another 150-by-25foot building added to the back for electrical equipment, plus boilers for heat and space for harvesting fish. While Tim and Boston installed a service door, the two other boys and I moved plants into newly emptied rafts and pulled plants from media beds. Pebble-filled media beds are where we grow such crops as kale, sweet peppers, tomatoes and Swiss chard. Instead of a good supper, we settled for bowls of cereal at 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 4 Each month we get a shipment of 260 baby tilapia
(called fry) that are 1 inch long and weigh almost 1 gram each.
Our newest babies arrived at 1:30 p.m. For the next two hours, we acclimated them to our water.
Every five minutes we added a cup of our system water to the water holding the fish. Then we moved the fry to their tanks, counting and weighing them as we went along, so we could calculate the amount of food they needed.
Aug. 5 Moving some of the largest fish to the purge tank ended up at the top of our to-do list. Purge tanks are where we put the fish to detoxify and eliminate any impurities from their bodies. They stay there for about five days prior to harvest.
Aug. 6 We let the kids sleep in today.
They joined Tim and me around 11 a.m. and we worked until 3 p.m. It started to rain, so we took a break for leftover pizza and naps. We then returned to the greenhouse and put screening on a wall that Boston had built to fit into the garage door. The screening will let air into the back of the greenhouse. We finished the day with popcorn and malts.
Aug. 7 I got up early, started a load of laundry, washed the dishes and worked at the computer. I woke up the kids at 8:15 and threw in another load of laundry before heading to the greenhouse. Once everyone arrived, we finished installing the screening, stripped old plants from the media bed, trimmed tomatoes, moved herbs and washed rafts. I told the boys I would take care of supper dishes if they trimmed the lawn. Tim took over, though, so I could email customers to let them know fish would be available next week. It was a long day.
Aug. 8 The kids took over feeding fish and moving plants while Tim and I headed off to a full day of Wisconsin Farm to School Network training about 40 minutes away. There we made valuable contacts while learning about requirements schools have to meet when finding local produce to feed their students.
Aug. 10 We pulled 40 fish out of the purge tanks and put them on ice to expire and chill down. My parents, Tim and I started filleting 40 fish. We baked, grilled and deep-fried a few so we can tell customers the best ways to prepare it. It was 10:30 p.m. by the time we finished, so my parents decided to stay over. We TILAPIA, PLEASE
Tilapia is an easy fish to grow in an aquaponics operation—a boon for beginners like the Goodenoughs.
This rugged, disease-resistant fish can handle a wide range of problems with water quality, temperature and ammonia levels. Plus, Bonny Goodenough says, tilapia is a mild white fish that consumers crave for its flavor and ease in cooking.
The Goodenoughs bring in new tilapia monthly, constantly moving them from the nursery to the main system, then out of the main system to harvest. On any given day there are nine sizes of fish in the Floating Gardens greenhouse.
love it when we get to have a slumber party with them.
Aug. 12 Last night we watched a Hallmark Christmas movie Elly had been talking about for a month. I may have napped a little while watching, but Elly never noticed.
Today Tim and the boys caulked the greenhouse while I took Elly to a birthday party. I raced home to change clothes so Tim and I could go to a wedding. We left the kids in charge, but our Sensaphone will always monitor greenhouse conditions while we are gone. We knew we’d get called if a pump went out or the temperature on any of the systems got too hot or cold.
Aug. 13 We plan to move our big commercial freezer to the greenhouse to hold fish and ice, which meant I had to buy two freezers yesterday to replace it in the house. Tim picked up one of the new freezers while I picked up Wyndsor from his second day of soccer tryouts. Later, Elly and I husked 24 ears of corn. We ate
BLT’s and corn for supper.
Aug. 14 The boys left home by 6:30 this morning for soccer practice. When they got back, they helped Tim with routine greenhouse tasks while I worked at getting barcodes assigned to our products. At noon, Elly and I drove to town for middle school registration and then to the Division of Motor Vehicles to register our two new trucks—one of them a refrigerated truck for deliveries.
Aug. 15 I spent the morning cutting and bagging herbs for delivery. After lunch, the boys went to register for high school. I found time to research the requirements for our next step, a food-processing area in our facility.
Aug. 16 We weigh 10 fish from each tank every two weeks so we can recalculate the amount of food they require as they grow. After today’s weigh-in, we discovered powdery mildew on all the produce growing on the rafts. What a letdown! We studied the environment logs and discovered humidity had reached
between 92 and 97 percent the past three nights. No wonder mildew set in. We changed the settings so vents open differently and the furnaces turn on to drive out moisture.
Aug. 18 Yesterday was the last full day for the fish in the purge tanks, so we lowered the temperature on the chiller to slow down their metabolism. I got up at 2 a.m. and discovered that the chiller was on but that the water supply was not, so the chiller froze up. I unplugged everything to thaw until 5 a.m.
At 11 a.m. we started filleting fish. We removed the rest of the fish from the purge tanks by 3 p.m. so they would expire before 5 p.m. when customers arrived. Our filleting classes started at 6 p.m. People came in and out until 8 p.m., after which we still had to finish filleting the unsold fish. At 10 p.m. we ate supper and went to bed. Glad this day is over.
Aug. 19 Today was special, so we did minimal tasks in the greenhouse. We don’t ever get a full day off, but after the chores, the boys in the family headed off to a professional soccer game in Chicago as a 17th birthday celebration for Kessler.
Elly and I and Boston’s girlfriend decided to enjoy the day with pedicures and a movie.
Aug. 21 Tim left at 2 a.m. to go to his part-time job driving a semitrailer. Wyndsor, Elly and I worked to dump the mildewed plants, and then got ready to host the soccer team for dinner. We served 31 boys and went through a lot of food.
Orders to Fill
Aug. 23 We finally get to harvest lettuce again, so the kids and I hurried to fill an order. Later, Elly and I dropped off some produce before I delivered her to band camp. After doing some chores, I caught a 30-minute nap. A 5 a.m. wake-up is too early when you worked until 9:30 the night before. We finished the day with tilapia—done on the grill so the mess stayed outside.
Aug. 24 Elly had band camp again. The boys had an evening soccer game in La Crosse. Amid all the driving, we managed to harvest lettuce and fill the rafts with plants. It feels so good to supply product to restaurants and stores again.
Aug. 25 We started with greenhouse jobs such as setting out sticky traps for flying pests. But I stayed in the house to can salsa and spaghetti sauce. Tim and I sat down at 9 p.m. to watch TV while we waited for the canners to finish, setting a timer just in case we fell asleep.
Aug. 26 After the boys’ 10 a.m. soccer game, we headed straight to the greenhouse to seed, move plants and decide where to set up an office. Once that’s done, I’ll be able to get some office work done in down times during the day. I’m too tired to do it in the evening by the time I get back to the house.
Aug. 28 Tim and Kessler hung new tomato trellises while Elly and I made three batches of trifle for dessert at the boys’ team dinner. We left at 5:30 p.m., returned four hours later and went straight to bed.
Aug. 29 After a busy workday, Tim cleaned up to go to the boys’ soccer game, but I stayed home—too much on my plate. I cleaned out dried-up plants that were done producing, dumped nursery clarifiers and battled greenhouse pests by releasing beneficial nematodes, wasp larvae and bacteria. We like to treat problems with them instead of chemicals.
Aug. 31 My mother-in-law is coming to clean, giving me the time to update the website and make stickers for our herbs. After letting the kids sleep until 7:30 a.m., we all worked until noon. Boston showed up to go over the construction projects we asked him to handle. Kessler and Wyndsor went to their soccer game at 5 p.m. The rest of us drove to the game about 6:30 p.m. and fed the fish when we returned a few hours later.
I hope you enjoyed a peek into our lives. We do the best we can, running our farming business while juggling family time and the kids’ sports and activities, but we wouldn’t trade a thing.
Fish farming requires nearly daily cleaning. Bonny Goodenough gets to work on one of the family’s massive tanks.
Floating Gardens farm spans four greenhouses. Below, Boston Goodenough inspects the tilapia.
The whole Goodenough family pitches in during busy times in the greenhouses. Here, Wyndsor and Elly swap growing trays with young plants.
Kessler and Bonny Goodenough harvest and bag lettuce heads ready for delivery.