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Superior Fresh at the forefront of aquaponics trend

If you find yourself eating locally grown, organic lettuce this winter and wonder how that’s possible, it’s probably because of a Wisconsin-based aquaponics firm.

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Brandon Gottsacker, chief operations officer for Superior Fresh, describes the facility that grows salmon and greens in the middle of western Wisconsin countryside.
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HIXTON, Wis. -- If you find yourself eating locally grown, organic lettuce this winter and wonder how that’s possible, it’s probably because of a Wisconsin-based aquaponics firm.

On a Native Restoration Sanctuary in the Coulee Region, about 60-miles from the Minnesota border, the company Superior Fresh has built a recirculated aquaculture facility and hydroponic greenhouse.

For those unfamiliar with aquaponics, the most basic definition is that it’s the combination of aquaculture (to raise and harvest fish) and hydroponics (to grow plants without soil). In even simpler terms, the fish waste feeds the plants and the plants clean the water for the fish.

The Superior Fresh facility uses nitrate-rich water from fish held in the aquaculture tanks to fertilize and water leafy greens in its greenhouse, which has recently doubled in size to 250,000 square-feet. The company is able to produce fresh products year-round, while maintaining a water-sustaining zero-discharge.

You’d be hard-pressed to find an organic, sustainable operation that can match the latitude of Superior Fresh.

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"We have no chemicals, no antibiotics, no pesticides and are non-GMO — even our fish food is certified organic," said Kurt Wagaman, general manager of Superior Fresh. "To grow what we have on about two-acres under glass, you’d need about 60-acres of conventional land."

The company grows more than 100,000 pounds of leafy greens a month, Wagaman said. That ranges from several different varieties of head lettuces to salad greens.

"A good way to imagine that, is that it’d be the equivalent of roughly 32,000 heads of lettuce every day," Wagaman said.

Inputs vs. outputs

Steelhead trout and Atlantic salmon are also raised under the same roof. Superior Fresh raises about one pound of fish for every 1.1 pounds of food that’s put into the system. According to Brandon Gottsacker, president of Superior Fresh, that’s a very efficient feed conversion ratio.

"On top of that, we’re using all that nutrient-rich water that the fish pass on to grow an additional 10-pounds of produce," said Gottsacker. "That’s 1 pound of input into the system and 10 pounds of healthy organic food out of the system. So that’s flipping the scales with agriculture inputs versus outputs, and it’s pretty special."

Wagaman said Superior Fresh hopes to add an herb line and is investigating the production of microgreens .

If you’re looking for Superior Fresh lettuce, you don’t have to go far. Wagaman said the firm’s lettuce can be found at any Kwik Trip location. Superior Fresh living butterhead lettuce and baby spring mix also are available in more than 600 stores throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the company’s washed leaf lettuce mixes are available at more than 30 stores throughout Wisconsin.

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This summer, Superior Fresh sold its first batch of land-farmed salmon at Festival Foods stores in Wisconsin.

Wanek family investment

The state-of-the-art aquaponic center in rural Wisconsin was built in 2015 by the Wanek family, owners of the Arcadia-based Ashley Furniture. The Waneks invested more than $100 million in the facility.

Interested in sustainable agriculture, Todd and Karen Wanek recruited Gottsacker, a distant relative of theirs with a degree in biological sciences, fisheries and aquaculture from the University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point.

"We had a common interest, and felt there was a huge need for sustainable agriculture and raising sustainable protein," Gottsacker said of his link to the Waneks.

To gain the knowledge he’d need to run a commercial operation, Gottsacker went to West Virginia to work as an aquaculture technician for the Freshwater Institute of The Conservation Fund. He credits Steven Summerfelt, the director of aquaculture systems research for the institute, for spending a year training him. Summerfelt now serves as the chief science officer for Superior Fresh.

"He took me more or less under his wing, and showed me the ropes," said Gottsacker. "He showed me the landscape of aquaculture and we visited sites all over North America."

Gottsacker returned to Wisconsin in 2013 to work with the Waneks on a business model, and how to approach the capital intensive startup. During that time they also decided to integrate hydroponics with aquaculture.

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"With Todd and Karen’s help, assistance and great background and understanding in business, we were able to put together what we think is the best plan," said Gottsacker. "To not only have a successful business, but to do it sustainably."

Growing trend

This week, Gottsacker and Wagaman were in Miami for the annual Aquaculture Innovation Workshop, where leaders from the industry are able to network.

This was the sixth workshop for Gottsacker. He said it’s amazing to see how much the aquaculture industry has grown in that time. Six years ago, the workshop had about 50 attendees and just a few commercial companies. This year he said there were around 20 companies.

According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, there are now 40 aquaponics facilities in the state.

"We’re proud to be the first ones to really take that same model in aquaculture and integrate it with commercial hydroponics application," Gottsacker said. "There’s a huge need for it, and this type of farming is going to continue to grow."

Related Topics: GARDENINGFOOD
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