TOWN OF NORTHFIELD — On the hilltop above the I-94 exit to Northfield sits a high-tech building that houses Superior Fresh, the first indoor Atlantic salmon farm in the U.S.
Chief operating officer Brandon Gottsacker touts the cutting-edge nature of the aquaculture facility.
“We are using the best technologies known today in aquaculture. In this facility, we are able to recirculate about 99.5 percent of our water in this facility alone, but, because we are re-purposing our water in the greenhouse, for the project as a whole, we are able to recirculate 99.9 percent of our water,” Gottsacker said.
Surprisingly, this fish farm uses very little water: The same water it’s continuously circulated through the tanks.
The water picks up the waste from the fish, waste that’s vital to the on-site greenhouse. The plants, in turn, clean the water so that it can be used again by the fish.
The seemingly simple process requires a delicate balance created by plant, fish and water experts.
“We can produce 30 times more leafy greens per square foot than conventional agriculture, with 20 times less water,” Gottsacker said.
Growing Atlantic salmon
The biosecurity protocol is strict, and includes boot covers, hand washing and stepping in a foot bath.
“This is such a controlled environment that if you bring disease into the facility, it would be very difficult to get it out,” Gottsacker said.
The salmon start as eggs and then work their way through different tanks until they are large enough to be eaten, about 10 pounds.
The fish are moved into different tanks with nets and totes until they come to a larger grow-out tank in the end. The facility has eight of these tanks.
Once the fish have grown to full size, they go through a depuration process.
“In the depuration system, you are allowing those fish to flush out any type of off-flavor that they may have,” said Gottsacker.
The facility will produce about 120,000 pounds of salmon a year. Fish grow to 10 pounds in about two years. In a typical net-pen operation, it would take three to four years for the fish to reach maturity.
Gottsacker said all of the fish food is sourced from North America. Salmon produced by Superior Fresh be mercury-free and be as high or higher in omega-3 fatty acids, which support brain and heart health.
Gottsacker says grocery stores in the region are excited about the salmon that will be produced at Superior Fresh.
“This is the most premium Atlantic salmon that you can get, especially in the Midwest, because these fish are local. They are not being shipped all the way from Norway or Chile or even northern parts of Canada. They are grown right here. Our fish are free of pesticides and free of antibiotics, which is impossible to find with Atlantic salmon these days,” Gottsacker said.
Superior Fresh is about a year away from being able to sell the salmon it produces.
Leafy greens served a new way
The other half of the Superior Fresh aquaculture vision is its greenhouse.
There is no soil in the greenhouse, instead Superior Fresh uses six pools filled with 850,000 gallons of nutrient-rich water and some Styrofoam rafts to grow thousands of heads of lettuce.
The plants start out in a typical greenhouse, with some help from lighting that is specifically for growing plants. These plants are planted in a grow media that doesn’t include soil. From there, the plants are transplanted onto Styrofoam rafts and placed into a pool of water.
Thwater is nutrient-rich, with the nutrients coming from the fish waste, and full of oxygen because Superior Fresh constantly aerates the water, which is why the plants do not drown as they typically would if they were over-watered in a pot.
The plants stay in the pool for about three weeks.
Gottsacker expects the facility to harvest 15,000 to 16,000 heads of lettuce a day when fully operational. He expects to grow the first heads of lettuce in the next couple of weeks.
Gottsacker says this method of producing leafy greens has many advantages for retail stores.
“Our goal is to sell to retail stores all over the Midwest. We can transport this produce a couple of hours as opposed to many, many hours or thousands of miles with conventional growers. Typically your leafy greens are coming from California or Mexico, and they have to travel a long way,” Gottsacker said.
Gottsacker hopes the facility will eventually grow other produce such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.
History of the project
“Our owners purchased the land four years ago and wanted to convert ag land into its native state. It started off with just a 120-acre property with a pond and the vision slowly grew. The passion for sustainable agriculture evolved from there. It started with growing fish in a pond and grew to this,” Gottsacker said.
“We wanted to show that we could grow fish and plants in a much smaller footprint and show that we could save natural resources like water and land,” Gottsacker said.
Superior Fresh sits on about five acres, including about three acres for the greenhouse and an acre for the aquaculture facility.