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Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune 

CJ Lass (left), Tommy Duren (center) and Ryan Gargaro celebrate Gargaro's second-period goal against the Reedsburg co-op Saturday in the sectional final. Onalaska won 6-0, and takes a 24-3 record and No. 8 seed to the state tournament.

Salmon in tanks, lettuce under glass: Disrupting the food chain in Jackson County

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.


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.


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.

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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.

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.


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.”

Using opioids to treat addiction is considered the gold standard; why aren’t more doctors prescribing them?

PHILADELPHIA (TNS) — Doctors need no special training to prescribe the opioid pain pills widely blamed for fueling a national addiction crisis.

But prescribing the medicine considered the gold standard for addiction treatment is another story entirely.

Opioid-based medications that help curb cravings, prevent overdoses, and allow drug users to get through the day without the fear of painful withdrawal have been proven to help people achieve lasting recovery far more reliably than quitting without medical help.

But, doctors say, federal regulations surrounding these treatment medications — and the special physician training and monitoring required to dispense them — have deterred many of their colleagues from obtaining the license needed to prescribe the drug.

Just 3 percent of doctors in Pennsylvania and 4 percent of those in Philadelphia have the waiver needed to prescribe the treatment medicine buprenorphine, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. And the problem is worse in rural areas: Nearly 30 percent of rural Americans live in a county without a buprenorphine provider, according to new research from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Methadone, the most heavily regulated opioid-based treatment drug, can only be dispensed at specially licensed clinics, and often requires users to visit daily for the drug and for counseling. Buprenorphine can be taken in one’s own home, and is available in pill form, as a longer-acting shot, and as the brand-name drug Suboxone, which combines buprenorphine with the overdose-reversal drug naloxone.

There are differences between the two opioid-based medicines, but both are longer-acting and don’t produce the peaks and troughs associated with short-term opioids, like heroin, making them useful for people in treatment.

Physicians who want to prescribe buprenorphine need a license commonly known as an x-waiver from the DEA and the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, after taking an eight-hour training course.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine’s eight-hour training course, one of several on offer on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s website, identifies its “learning objectives” as teaching doctors how to apply for the waiver, to identify patients who’d benefit from buprenorphine and to recognize other illnesses associated with opioid addiction.

From there, a doctor can treat up to 30 patients in their first year with the license, 100 in their second year, and are capped at 275 in their third.

Another irony: These restrictions apply only to doctors prescribing these medications for a substance use disorder. There’s no special license required to prescribe methadone for pain. And though buprenorphine is not FDA-approved for pain, some providers are prescribing it off-label without an x-waiver.

The DEA’s local spokesman, Pat Trainor, said the x-waiver “allows doctors to help people to get medication-assisted treatment in their communities — and not have to go to a narcotic treatment program, so as to avoid the stigma of that,” he said, and added that primary care doctors not accustomed to treating addiction need training to do so.

But doctors who treat people with addiction say the regulations themselves create stigma, and discourage more doctors from seeing substance use disorder as a disease that they can treat.

“Doctors have basically been taught and raised and are functioning in a system where addiction is always someone else’s job,” said Priya Mammen, an emergency physician and public health advocate from South Philadelphia. “The regulations treat these medications as qualitatively different from any other medication we prescribe. It gives off the impression that addiction is a specific kind of illness — but from all the literature, all the data we know, it’s a chronic disease. But it’s not treated like that in the system.”

ector of the division of medical toxicology in the University of Pennsylvania’s emergency department, has worked to expand her system’s buprenorphine program.

She believes doctors should still get some kind of training before beginning to prescribe buprenorphine, and has helped implement classic behavioral incentives to get more doctors into training.

The university paid for x-waiver training courses for its physicians, and allowed them to take the course online. They sent emails telling stories of Penn patients’ success on Suboxone. “Each week they got an email sort of nudging them along in the process, saying, ‘It’s not too late to sign up, you still have time to finish this — and look what your colleagues are doing (with buprenorphine),” Perrone said.

About 75 percent of Penn’s full-time emergency department staff now have x-waivers. Perrone said her goal is to create “a culture of buprenorphine in the whole city.” She is pinning her hopes largely on newer doctors and medical students whose training increasingly includes addiction medicine.

Most physicians who obtain an x-waiver will likely not hit their prescribing cap. Many doctors who get the x-waiver don’t even use it, said Leo Beletsky, an associate professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University’s law school.

“It’s not enough to get people waivered,” he said. “You still have these issues around stigma. People don’t want to submit themselves to periodic DEA audits. They just don’t want to deal with this element of their practice.”

Where the caps can present challenges, Beletsky said, is in larger clinical settings. In Philadelphia’s men’s prisons, a just-launched Suboxone program has been paused because the prisons’ doctors have already hit their prescribing caps, WHYY reported last month.

Bruce Herdman, the prisons’ chief of medical operations, said his doctors will be able to expand their prescribing caps to 275 patients each by midsummer. Until then, new inmates with substance use disorder are being directed to an abstinence-only treatment program that includes cognitive behavioral therapy.

The prison is also looking to hire doctors with higher buprenorphine caps in the meantime.

“We have a great treatment to provide, and I don’t understand the logic behind this federal regulation,” he said.

Tony Evers' plan for WEDC seeks to limit outsourcing, incentivize renewable energy

Businesses getting state incentives for economic development projects would have to disclose major changes to their plans and could not use state dollars to move jobs out of state under Gov. Tony Evers’ proposal for the next state budget.

The budget proposal, set to be released in full Thursday, would also create new incentives for renewable energy projects, according to a summary of changes Evers will propose for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. provided Sunday to the Wisconsin State Journal. It was first reported by

Evers aims to make the state’s quasi-public jobs agency, also known as WEDC, operate more openly and track state dollars going to businesses more effectively.

Evers’ plan, while seeking changes to WEDC, falls far short of his campaign proposal to abolish it and move its functions elsewhere in state government.

One provision in the proposal says that for any contracts in which the state provides business tax credits of more than $5 million, the recipient would have to update the state of its plans for employment and investment “if there are any material changes to the activities negotiated in its contract.”

That comes shortly after Taiwanese electronics giant Foxconn revealed it is changing its plans for a $10 billion campus near Racine, for which the state has pledged $3 billion in tax credits plus other state and local subsidies. The company said it is maintaining plans to build a liquid-crystal-display panel manufacturing plant in Mount Pleasant, but it will make smaller panels than what originally was proposed.

Evers’ office did not answer questions on the plan Sunday, including questions about whether this provision would apply to Foxconn or if its inclusion was influenced by recent developments related to Foxconn.

GOP legislative leaders and WEDC officials also could not be reached Sunday for comment on the plan.

Evers’ plan also would require that no loan, grant or tax credit awarded by WEDC be used “to relocate jobs outside Wisconsin or reduce net employment by a recipient in Wisconsin.”

A State Journal report in 2014 found WEDC and its predecessor, the state Commerce Department, had awarded state funding to companies that outsourced jobs.

On Thursday Evers is set to unveil his full proposal for the 2019-21 state budget, the two-year cycle starting July 1. Other provisions in his WEDC plan would:

  • Provide a new incentive to invest in renewable energy generation or energy efficient projects. The plan would change the state’s business development tax credit to provide an additional 5-percent incentive for such projects.
  • Direct WEDC to grant at least $1 million a year to regional economic development organizations, in what Evers’ office calls an effort “to promote widespread economic opportunity around Wisconsin.”
  • Restrict jobs the agency could report as being created or retained by companies that receive state assistance. Under the plan, they could only report jobs created or retained that meet terms for the programs in which the company is participating. That follows a recommendation made by the Legislature’s nonpartisan audit bureau in 2017.
  • Change how tax credits are calculated for restoring historic buildings. A $3.5 million limit for awards under the state’s historic rehabilitation credit program would be applied on a per-project, as opposed to a per-parcel, basis.

Created in 2011 by former Gov. Scott Walker, WEDC has been the focus of fierce disagreement between its GOP defenders and Democratic critics.

Evers has criticized its secrecy and management of public funds, while Republican lawmakers moved aggressively during a December lame-duck legislative session to wrest control of the agency.

One of the laws passed during the controversial session, held just before Evers took office, bars the governor from appointing the agency’s CEO until September and gives GOP lawmakers control of its governing board.

Another law moved a state liaison position for the Foxconn project from the Department of Administration to WEDC. Evers’ proposal moves that position back to DOA.

Fernando Vergara 

Colombian soldiers hold coffee as they arrive to the Simon Bolivar International Bridge in La Parada, near Cucuta, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela, early Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019. A U.S.-backed drive to deliver foreign aid to Venezuela on Saturday met strong resistance as troops loyal to President Nicolas Maduro blocked the convoys at the border and fired tear gas on protesters. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

Blizzard hits hardest in southern Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS — Authorities have rescued dozens of people stranded by a blizzard that howled across southern Minnesota and dumped about a foot of snow in some places. In east-central Wisconsin, one person was killed and several others injured Sunday in an interstate pileup during whiteout conditions.

With more snow, wind and frigid temperatures forecast for Monday, some area school districts weren’t taking any chances.

Alma Center-Humbird-Merrillan, Alma, Arcadia, Blair-Taylor, Cochrane-Fountain City, Independence and Whitehall schools in Wisconsin; La Crescent, Lewiston-Altura, Rushford-Peterson, Spring Grove and Winona in Minnesota; and Allamakee and Eastern Allamakee in Iowa canceled Monday classes.

School was set to start two hours later than normal in Bangor, Black River Falls, Cashton, De Soto, Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau, Luther, Melrose-Mindoro, Norwalk-Ontario-Wilton, Royall, Sparta, Tomah and West Salem schools in Wisconsin; and Houston schools in Minnesota.

Gov. Tim Walz declared a state of emergency late Saturday and ordered the Guard to help stranded motorists in Freeborn and Steele counties. Conditions were so bad in southern Minnesota on Sunday that state Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Joe Kelly urged residents to either stay home or if they are stranded on the road, to stay in their vehicle and wait for help.

The Minnesota National Guard rescued 30 people in Freeborn County on Saturday night, Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management said in a tweet. Sheriff’s deputies rescued an additional 20 people.

Forty-eight people were sheltered at a Guard armory in Albert Lea, near the Minnesota-Iowa border, while the Owatonna armory housed 24 people stranded by the blizzard.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation said Interstate 35 was closed from Owatonna to the Iowa border and I-90 was closed from Dexter in Mower County west, due to poor driving conditions with blowing and drifting snow. Many other highways in southeastern Minnesota were closed Sunday morning.

The National Weather Service reported 13 inches of snow in Kasson and 11.5 inches in Albert Lea.

In Wisconsin, one person was killed and several others injured and taken to hospitals Sunday in a pileup amid whiteout conditions on southbound Interstate 41 that involved more than 40 vehicles, the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Office and Department of Transportation said.

North Dakota transportation officials closed I-29 in both the northbound and southbound lanes from Grand Forks to the Canadian border on Sunday because of blowing snow, which was creating icy road conditions, areas of zero visibility and life-threatening driving conditions.