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World’s Largest Aquaponics Operation Opens in American Heartland

Now, more than 1,000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, there are plenty of Atlantic salmon—120,000 pounds’ worth—in the Town of Northfield, Wisconsin.  Sea Grant supported research, education and workforce development to help make it possible.

Superior Fresh, LLC, opened in late August thanks to a university-private industry collaboration and is expected to employ up to 50 people. The business reports it is the largest aquaponics facility in the world and the first indoor recirculating aquaculture system in Wisconsin raising Atlantic salmon.

The 40,000-square-foot fish-rearing facility is using the same water to raise the salmon, as well as rainbow trout, which nurtures eight types of greens. All the products will feed consumers hungry for fresh, locally produced goods. Superior Fresh is, said COO Brandon Gottsacker, “Based on the prospect that we can change the world.”

He’s laid out a tall order but Superior Fresh is addressing America’s seafood deficit and a market clamoring for chemical-free, nutritious and delicious food. This country imports more than 90 percent of the seafood it consumes, often from countries with lower health standards and raised in possibly non-sustainable ways.

At Superior Fresh, the fish will go from egg to market in two years. Once at optimum operation, 160,000 pounds of fish will be produced annually. Of the water where salmon and trout reside, 99.9 percent is recirculated to the adjoining 123,000-square-foot greenhouse through a series of underground pipes. The fish water supplies nutrients to enhance the plants growing on hundreds of floating white rafts. In turn, the plants cleanse the water of ammonia, which is harmful for the fish. The newly purified water makes a return journey through the pipes back to the tanks. The small percentage of water released irrigates an alfalfa field, “So, we are getting another crop,” Gottsacker said. 

Superior Fresh harvested its first head of lettuce in July. Once operations are ramped up, each day will reap 30,000 heads of lettuce. The fish are still growing. In 2018, the first of the 10-pound market-weight salmon will be headed to dinner plates. 

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker attended the Superior Fresh grand opening. He said, “This is a model. This is environmentally sound and economically sound.”

That’s true, and he could have equally noted the business relies on academic research, education, outreach and workforce development. In this instance, Sea Grant funds the outreach, education and workforce development efforts of Emma Wiermaa. She is stationed at UWSP-NADF, alongside of Fischer, who said, “We just can’t push them (aquaculture technicians) out fast enough. It’s critical that they’re properly trained. That’s the other big issue. Even the kids that come to us, they’ve graduated. They have a degree but they still don’t know how to do this. If we train them for another year or two and we send them out, they’re having really good success. Right now, some of the highly sought-after personnel Superior Fresh is hiring are our past interns or technicians.” 

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