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Salmon in tanks, lettuce under glass disrupt the food chain

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NORTHFIELD — Salmon aren’t supposed to be swimming here.

The lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens also are out of place.

A 3-acre greenhouse, nearly twice the length of a football field, glows purple from its more than 1,100 LED grow lights — a sight that turns the heads of passing motorists on Interstate 94 at night. The lights, with cloud-based software, help mimic California’s Salinas Valley.

Next door, the North Atlantic Ocean is replicated in a one-acre fish house. Thousands of Atlantic salmon, some newly hatched from eggs sourced in Iceland, others nearly 10 pounds after two years, are raised in 22,000-gallon tanks filled with fresh water drawn from a 180-foot-deep well.

About 95 percent of the Atlantic salmon consumed in the U.S. is imported, primarily from Norway and Chile, while about 90 percent of the lettuce grown in the U.S. comes from traditional farm fields, mainly in California and Arizona.

But just up the hill from an abandoned schoolhouse in the rolling hills of west central Wisconsin about 33 miles southeast of Eau Claire, 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of salmon are harvested each week and 1.5 million pounds of leafy greens each year. And it’s all being sold to grocers, restaurants and wholesalers within a 400-mile radius of Jackson County.

Superior Fresh

Between 3,000 and 4,000 pounds of salmon are harvested each week from the company's tanks. A second fish house with larger tanks is planned to be built in 2020 and would increase production five fold.

Disruption isn’t designed to blend in. And that’s certainly the case for Superior Fresh, which bills itself as the world’s largest aquaponics facility.

“This is really a pioneering facility that’s breaking all of the molds,” said Steve Summerfelt, an aquaculture systems expert and the chief science officer for Superior Fresh. “We’re truly disrupting food systems.”

Safe, local food

With millions of dollars in financial backing from Todd Wanek, the CEO of Ashley Furniture, and his wife, Karen, this is where a team of experts schooled in the minutiae of aquaculture and hydroponics uses water from the fish rearing process to grow vegetables year round on floating mats. It’s all certified organic with no pesticides, growth hormones or other additives.

Superior Fresh

Baby red leaf lettuce can go from seed to harvest in 18 to 24 days in the temperature-controlled environment that includes more than 1,100 grow lights. Each mat can grow 18 plants.

Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. Water in which fish are raised is then used to fill greenhouse tanks to grow plants. The fish waste provides nutrients for the plants, and the water recirculates between the tanks.

Like hydroponics, aquaponics systems require less land and water than conventional crop production methods, increase growth rates and allow for year-round production.

Once the fish and vegetable systems at Superior Fresh were filled with water, the operation uses between six and eight gallons of water a minute, much of which is used to replace water that has evaporated from the system.

But despite the eye-popping numbers and the size of the farm, which includes a 10,500-square-foot packaging operation, this $17 million facility is only the beginning.

A $10 million project to double the size of the greenhouse and equip it with automated harvesting and packaging equipment is nearing completion and there are plans for a second fish house with tanks up to 100,000 gallons that could raise five times the amount of salmon currently being raised here.

The company also has its sights on even larger facilities on the east and west coasts that could each be more than twice the size of the operation in Wisconsin and bring locally grown salmon and greens within reach of millions more people.

Superior Fresh

Around 40 varieties of leafy greens are grown at Superior Fresh in the town of Northfield near Hixton. These packages are being tested for shelf life in the company's storage cooler. About 12 varieties are on the market and being sold at retailers like Kwik Trip, Sendik's Food Market, Trig's and Festival Foods. 

The projects, which use no surface water and emphasize cleanliness including bio-security measures to prevent contamination of crops, are designed to decrease transportation costs and provide locally sourced food. This comes at a time when food safety is top of mind after recent e-coli outbreaks from contaminated romaine lettuce.

An outbreak this fall was traced to lettuce grown in Santa Barbara County, California. The source of the E. coli was an on-farm reservoir, according to a report this month from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

Superior Fresh

Sprigs of lettuce grow atop a floating mat at Superior Fresh, a massive aquaponics operation in the town of Northfield in Jackson County.

“It hurt us a lot. All of our retailers, all of our customers, all of our distributors said (they couldn’t) buy romaine. Unfortunately, we got lumped in with all romaine producers,” said Brandon Gottsacker, president of Superior Fresh. “This facility was designed around food safety and food safety protocols. It’s the most important thing and we need to make sure that everybody follows that mentality.”

Aquaponics in Wisconsin

Wisconsin has about 2,000 fish farms but only 123 are producing fish for human consumption, according to data from the state Department of Agriculture, Trade & Consumer Protection.

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It’s unclear how many of those are using aquaponics systems but known operations include KP Simply Fresh near North Freedom in Sauk County that has a 9,000-square-foot greenhouse fed by 10 1,200-gallon tanks brimming with tilapia.

Just south of Paoli in Dane County, Mike and Dagny Knight have transformed a former 120-acre dairy farm established in the 1800s into Clean Fresh Foods where they use tilapia in 12 1,200-gallon tanks to raise greens in a 7,200-square-foot greenhouse next to the 2,700-square-foot fish house.

Superior Fresh

Atlantic salmon fry share a tank at Superior Fresh near Hixton. It takes about two years for an Atlantic salmon to reach nine to 10 pounds, which is the ideal size to ship on ice to grocery stores and restaurants. About 95 percent of the Atlantic salmon consumed in the U.S. is imported but Superior Fresh is trying to disrupt the market by growing the fish here in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is also home to Nelson & Pade, a Montello company founded in 1984 that designs and builds aquaponics systems, experiments with growing techniques and hosts classes for students from around the world. The systems can range from small home facilities to commercial operations housed in urban warehouses and former dairy barns.

Superior Fresh

A variety of seedlings begin to mature under grow lights at Superior Fresh near Hixton. The company harvested its first lettuce in 2017 and now produces about 1.5 million pounds of leafy greens a year.

Raising salmon

Superior Fresh is taking the commercial aquaponics industry to a new level by showing how salmon and greens can be profitably grown on a large scale.

Superior Fresh

While much of the fish at Festival Foods in Madison comes from around the world, the Atlantic salmon, center, is raised in west central Wisconsin at Superior Fresh, the world's largest aquaponics facility.

Most aquaponics operations make little revenue from the tilapia grown in their fish houses. But salmon sales are part of Superior Fresh’s business model, offer a higher price point, are more marketable than tilapia and are being grown in relative close proximity to buyers.

“I think it’s a natural progression of the industry,” said Chris Hartleb, a professor of fisheries biology 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. The challenge that Brandon is facing is that when you’re the first of a kind, there’s no one to show you the way. He’s kind of inventing both an inland Atlantic salmon culture and tying it into the growth of plants. So there’s a couple of technical hurdles he has to jump over and figure out.”

Superior Fresh

Leafy green vegetables grow atop floating mats under LED grow lights inside a three-acre greenhouse at Superior Fresh near Hixton.

Salmon are raised in water that is about 39 degrees. The nutrient-rich water is then pumped to the neighboring greenhouse where the water is allowed to warm naturally to around 75 degrees and can be used to grow baby red leaf lettuce from seed to harvest in 18 to 24 days.

Superior Fresh

Brandon Gottsacker, president of Superior Fresh, shows off a nearly 10-pound fish that took two years to grow. Eggs are sourced from Iceland and hatched on site.

“My true passion was to raise fish but it took a little time for me to realize that it wasn’t just about the fish but about raising sustainable food. I took the blinders off a little bit,” Gottsacker said. “Aquaculture business is tough. It’s a high capital investment and they’re very complicated systems. When we looked at the business plan and the risk that came along with it and the scale and the amount of money that’s involved, it just didn’t work out they way we had thought.”

Efficient system

Ground was broken on the Superior Fresh aquaponics facilities in 2015. The company sold its first head of lettuce in 2017 and its first Atlantic salmon on July 4, 2018. Construction on a second, 3-acre greenhouse took place in May and is scheduled to go on line this May.

Construction of a second fish house is planned for 2020 and the company has begun studying the addition of solar panels to power the systems. The property has also grown to 720 acres as the Waneks have purchased neighboring farms to create Freshwater Family Farms, where native prairie, savannas and woodlands are being restored, native flora are being planted and invasive species removed.

Superior Fresh

A $10 million expansion project will double the size of the greenhouse space at Superior Fresh to 6 acres. However the new 3-acre facility will include automation for harvesting and packaging leafy greens. The project is scheduled to be completed by May.

Summerfelt, the keynote speaker at last weekend’s Wisconsin Aquaculture Conference in Eau Claire, was asked to design the aquaculture and water treatment systems and in July was hired away from the Freshwater Institute to work full time with Superior Fresh, which employs about 50 people.

“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 very powerful statement.”

The Superior Fresh system, which includes about 850,000 gallons of water in the greenhouse, has interior and exterior weather stations that talk to each other and open and close roof vents to help regulate temperatures. On a recent day, with temperatures outside in the mid-20s, the greenhouse temperature was 76 degrees. During the polar vortex, interior temperatures dropped to the upper 50s, Gottsacker said.

Superior Fresh

Leafy green vegetables grow atop floating mats under LED grow lights inside a three-acre greenhouse at Superior Fresh near Hixton.

More than 40 varieties of greens are grown, some on an experimental basis, with about a dozen varieties sold to Kwik Trip, Festival Foods, Sendik’s Food Markets in the Milwaukee area and Trig’s grocery stores in central and northern Wisconsin. 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 really cool. It’s much, much more efficient.”

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