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Copyright © 2019 MorningStar Aquaponics
When you think of Wisconsin, you don’t think of salmon? Or leafy greens such as lettuce, spinach, etc. I think of dairy cows and cheese!
That is all changing with the rapidly growing new form of farming called aquaponics. Head down Interstate 94 at night and follow the glowing purple lights from the 1,100 LED grow lights. Trust me; you will turn your head and think, “What the heck?” The facility is run like NASA, but they won’t be sending any rockets up in space soon but be shipping fresh greens and salmon to their local grocers and distributors in the masses.
Along with the greenhouse is a replicated North Atlantic Ocean 1-acre fish house. Thousands up thousands of salmon ranging from newly hatched eggs brought in from Iceland to 10 pounds after two years of growth. They are raised in 22,000-gallon tanks filled with freshwater drawn from a 180-foot well.
At this time, 95 percent of the Atlantic salmon consumed in the U.S. is mostly imported from Norway and Chile. About 90 percent of the lettuce grown in the U.S. comes from California and Arizona, produced by traditional farming methods.
According to Superior Fresh, they are the largest aquaponics facility. “This is a pioneering facility that’s breaking all the molds,” said Steve Summerfelt, an aquaculture systems expert and the chief science officer for Superior Fresh. “We’re truly disrupting food systems.”
The financial backers of this project are Todd Wanek, the CEO of Ashley Furniture, and his wife, Karen. They have put millions of dollars of support to ensure their success.
Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. The water is circulated from the fish tanks into the greenhouse to help the plants to grow. Some will say jokingly say; that fish poo equals plant power and provides the plants’ nutrients. Then the water is recirculated back to the fish tanks. The beautiful thing is, it’s all certified organic with no pesticides, growth hormones, or other additives.
Another well-known fact about aquaponics is that it requires less land and water than conventional food production methods. It also increases plant growth rates and allows year-round production.
This $17 million-dollar facility is only the beginning for Superior Fresh. They are planning on a $10 million-dollar expansion project. They will double the size of the greenhouse and add automation to harvest and package. There are plans to add another fish house with around 100,000 gallons that can raise five times more salmon than currently being raised.
The future goal is to develop even more extensive facilities on the east and west coasts that could be twice the size of Wisconsin’s current location providing fresh greens and salmon to millions of people.
Because of the controlled environment, Superior Fresh can ensure cleanliness, including bio-security, to prevent crop contamination. Food safety is a primary concern, especially with recent scares with e-coli outbreaks with romaine lettuce.
“I think it’s a natural progression of the industry,” said Chris Hartleb, a fisheries biology professor at UW-Stevens Point and co-director of the Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility in Bayfield. “They went for a very high-valued fish in salmon. Brandon’s challenge is that when you’re the first of a kind, there’s no one to show you the way. He’s inventing both an inland Atlantic salmon culture and tying it into plants’ growth. So, there’s a couple of technical hurdles he has to jump over and figure out.”
The building of the Superior Fresh aquaponics facilities began in 2015. The company sold its first package lettuce in 2017, and the Atlantic salmon was in July 2018. They built another greenhouse in 2018, and it went online in May 2019. The second fish house was to start construction in 2020.
The company is studying ways of greater efficiency, such as solar panels to add to the systems’ power. The main goal is to fine-tune the operations for a greater level of profitability by further automation. “We have great food, a great team, and a production facility that can be (replicated) across the country,” said Summerfelt. “We’ve developed technology to work within the regulatory framework. We have zero surface water discharge, and that’s a compelling statement.”
The Superior Fresh system contains around 850,000 gallons of water in the greenhouse. There are interior and exterior weather stations that talk to each other. A computerized system will open and close roof vents to help regulate the temperatures. For example, recently, the outside temperatures were in the mid-20’s, the greenhouse temperatures were 76 degrees. During the polar vortex, interior temperatures dropped to the upper 50’s.
Over 40 varieties of greens are grown, some on an experimental basis. Around a dozen, types are sold to local retail outlets or distributors in the Wisconsin area. Atlantic salmon and steelhead salmon are shipped whole and on ice to Festival Foods, Trig’s, and restaurants in western Wisconsin and the Twin Cities.
Growing salmon provides a higher rate of return compared to input costs from other meats raised in Wisconsin. With beef, it takes about 10 pounds of feed to produce one pound of meat. A pig needs five pounds of feed to create a pound of pork, while poultry requires three pounds of feed for a pound of meat, Gottsacker said. At Superior Fresh, it takes 1.1 pounds of feed to get one pound of salmon.
“Then you take the waste from that fish, and the water that it grows in is full of nutrients, and we’re growing another 10 pounds of produce,” Gottsacker said. “So, it’s one pound of fish food into the system and 10 to 11 pounds of fish and plants out, which is cool. It’s much, much more efficient.”