RACINE - In Joe Heineman's last job, as a wholesaler, he often had trouble getting retailers to even return his calls.
"Now I call them," he said, "and they say, ‘We'll be there tomorrow.'"
The commodity that's whetted retailers' appetite is lettuce - locally, organically, hydroponically and aquaponically grown. Right now Roundy's is taking all the lettuce that Heineman and his wife, Johanna "Jo" Hearron-Heineman, can grow.
Meanwhile, he said his Chicago buyers are clamoring for more of the tilapia fish that are the other side of the aquaponics operation called Natural Green Farms.
Recently, the Bristol couple have taken steps to dramatically expand the amount they can supply from inside a converted factory at 615 Marquette St. They're currently doubling both lettuce and tilapia production. Their weekly lettuce harvest will jump to 7,000, or 364,000 a year, starting in late April.
But that's just a sprout on the way to the Heinemans' goal: filling their four-story building with fish tanks and lettuce beds. He calculates they could raise 10 million heads of lettuce and 1 million pounds of fish a year. At current prices, the fish would fetch $2.5 million and the lettuce $15 million or more.
For any doubters, all they have to do is look at what the Heinemans have accomplished in their first three years inside the former J.I. Case Plow Works.
Nothing in Heineman's work history suggested farming; he was a truck driver, then a salesman. As his wholesale business ebbed, the building owner, Rick Olson, "kept saying he was going to raise fish in the building," Joe Heineman said.
Instead it was Heineman who decided to try. He built his first fish-raising system by himself - with no consultants - for about $30,000. Asked how, he replied, "It's all on the Internet."
That doesn't mean it was easy. "First of all," he said, "we read all these books, and one book contradicts the other book."
At first, Heineman said, "I was just going to raise fish.
"Then it was like, ‘What do I do with all the crap?' "
Answer: Feed plants.
The system he built began with 3,000-gallon fish tanks stocked with tiny tilapia too small at first to even deserve the word "fingerlings." The fish - which are sold at 1½ pounds each - are there for two main reasons. Heating the tanks to 80 degrees is the building's only heat source. Because lighting costs are tremendous, avoiding heating the building means important savings.
And the fish tank wastewater is the emulsion that feeds the plants. Heineman built two different systems to deliver it to the shallow troughs the lettuce roots dangle into.
"The fish pay for everything," is the way he looks at it. "The lettuce lives for free on the heat." Also, instead of paying for fertilizer, the fish provide that, too.
Another benefit: the Heinemans insist their lettuce tastes much better than hydroponic lettuce fed on synthetic fertilizers.
The Heinemans have invested about $250,000 so far but recently took on Tower Energy Partners, 1520 S. Sylvania Ave., Yorkville, as partners. Tower - co-owned by Ralph Bencriscutto and Pat Rooney - supplied both energy-efficiency expertise and additional cash to expand.
Heineman continually tinkers with processes as the operation expands. For example, he is now building long, shallow ponds that Styrofoam boards will float on. Young lettuce plants, plugged into holes in those boards, will drink from the fish emulsion-filled ponds. At harvest time, a big paddle will draw the floating lettuce rafts to workers, simplifying the harvest.
For now, the Heinemans grow only the lettuce variety interchangeably called Bibb, Boston or buttercrunch. If that market ever reached saturation, they could easily switch to other greens.
"The profit margins are very low," Heineman said, so it doesn't attract many hydroponic farmers. "If I can grow it and make money, I won't have any competition."
A century ago in that building, he noted, plows were made that helped break the sod of the Great Plains.
"That was the biggest thing in farming then," Heineman said.
"A hundred years later, we're doing the biggest thing in farming now."