By Sandy K. Johnson

For six generations, the Mueth family farmed the land near Waterloo, Illinois, just like their neighbors: row crops like corn and soybeans. The seventh generation, comprised of six brothers, is doing things differently.

They have a startup aquaponics operation, combining hydroponic techniques with aquaculture to produce lettuce, basil and other greens to sell at nearby farmers markets and a few restaurants. VAST Produce sells 75 to 80 pounds of produce a week, with a goal of tripling that.

The six brothers all have day jobs and rent most of the family’s 250 acres to a cousin. They wanted to keep a hand in farming, and settled on trying aquaponics by building out existing barns on the family land. It took them 5,000 hours of sweat equity to kit out what became VAST Produce.

The operation works like this, as described by Andrew Mueth: Two 3,500-gallon fish tanks are filled with blue gills (or tilapia), whose waste is filtered out of the water to leave nutrient-rich leftover water for feeding the plants. It’s chemical and pesticide free.

The water system uses 400 gallons a day, and circulates among the vertical rows of greens, from top to bottom, aided by gravity. To grow one head of lettuce consumes one gallon of water – that’s a tenth of the water needed to grow lettuce in soil.

On Thursday and Friday each week, the brothers harvest 900 heads of lettuce and then bag them into a spring mix. They also grow microgreens and herbs such as basil and arugula. On Saturdays, they sell the bagged produce at half a dozen farmers markets, including in nearby St. Louis. Prices run $4 for a bag of salad mix and $3 for microgreens.

Because middlemen and shippers are cut out, VAST Produce lettuce will last for two to three weeks in the refrigerator. Mueth said most supermarket-sold greens in St. Louis come from as far away as Canada, California and Mexico, which explains why it spoils quicker.

The brothers can grow produce year around in the climate-controlled sheds, even in 100-degree summer heat and low teens in the winter. They hope to scale the operation by two or three times within five years.