NORTHFIELD — Sandy Burton doesn’t know what aquaponics means. She does know the impressively massive construction effort just off Interstate 94 in the Jackson County town of Northfield involves fish and plants.
“I just want to know what they are doing,” Burton, of Osseo, said Friday from outside a convenience store in Northfield, about 10 miles southeast of Osseo. “The one building is huge, and I think they’re growing fish.”
The innovative business that may begin operating by the end of the year will incorporate raising Atlantic salmon and steelhead trout, with the nutrient-rich water from that process used to facilitate a nearby greenhouse for a variety of leafy greens.
Fish and produce from the two enterprises will carry the Superior Fresh label and eventually be marketed to retail outlets in an estimated 400-mile radius, said Brandon Gottsacker, chief operations officer for Superior Fresh.
Superior Fresh is a subsidiary of North Country Clear Waters. NCCW is owned by Todd and Karen Wanek of Arcadia. Todd Wanek is president and CEO of Ashley Furniture.
“This has been a project in the making for about 4½ years,” Gottsacker said Friday. “It’s a project our owners were excited about, exploring the opportunities around sustainable food production.”
Gottsacker, a native of Eagle River, was attending UW-Stevens Point and was one of many hoping to work in fisheries with the state Department of Natural Resources when he became interested in aquaculture and “saw an opportunity to kind of be a leader in the industry.”
Gottsacker, a distant relative of Karen Wanek, said he and the Waneks expressed joint interests in the fish industry and sustainable food products. He received training for about a year at the Freshwater Institute, a program of The Conservation Fund, where he worked with Steve Summerfelt.
“He is a world-renown expert on aquaculture and water recirculating technologies,” Gottsacker said Friday. “It’s all about trying to grow healthy food in a way that minimizes production impact on the environment.”
Aquaponics combines conventional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water).
Superior Fresh is on the leading edge of aquaponics, such to the point that Gottsacker did not allow photos inside the fish house and greenhouse.
“We have special filtration processes that take place that have never been seen in the industry,” he said.
Plans call for the salmon and trout to be raised from egg to harvest in fiberglass tanks in a nearly 1-acre building, with the water from that process filtered and used for growing plants in the massive 2½-acre greenhouse.
Gottsacker said the process reclaims phosphorous, nitrates and nitrogen “that’s in the water from the fish and using that nutrient-rich water to grow plants. The strategy is to create a premium food product from what other fish farmers think of as waste.”
Those particular fish are being raised because of their health benefits. The vast majority of fish being raised at the site will be salmon.
“We have no numbers yet,” Gottsacker responded when asked about the volume of fish expected to be raised and processed through the facility. “We just love the idea of raising a premum species, something that is healthy for you. These are about as healthy as you can get.”
Regarding the greenhouse, he said the leafy greens were selected “because they are a high-turnover product, which has a fairly short lifespan, and it takes only 35 to 40 days to grow a head of lettuce, herbs and microgreens. There is a wide variety of species in that realm that we could grow.
“Our goal is to be as flexible as possible,” Gottsacker added about the produce. “We’re creating the ideal growing environment year around. We want to give retailers the opportunity to tell us what they need, what might be a shortage, and we can have it ready ahead of time.
“Our long-term goal is to provide a model that can feed a lot of people with premium, safe, organic produce year-round anywhere in the world and on very little water,” he said.
When in full production, the business is expected to have between 25 and 30 full-time employees, including about five in the fish house.
“Any water that we don’t have a use for in our facility goes to an irrigation pond,” Gottsacker said. “And then this nutrient-rich, clean, clear water will go to an (adjacent 20-acre) alfalfa field.”
For biosecurity reasons, employees at one building will not work at the other, he said.
The site will also include a large cooler and freezer, and natural gas will eventually be extended to the site. Two wells on the property have been tested and are contaminant free, Gottsacker said.
“We’ve worked very closely with the DNR on this project,” he said. “They seem to be excited about it, that this model is what they want to see. They are excited about technologies and how we are reusing water.
“We feel this is a good business model that has a lot of potential through the future because water issues continue to rise in the country and world,” Gottsacker said. “The amount of water we’re using in agriculture today could be an issue in the future.”
Gottsacker said the Northfield project has drawn a lot of local attention, but he expects it could draw worldwide attention.
“The whole aquaponics idea has taken off recently, but there is no other facility that has taken it to this step,” he said. “I think people will be amazed by what will be done here.”
Gottsacker just smiled when asked how much the project will cost, admitting it was in the millions.
“We’re excited about something like this coming in,” said Richard Erickson, chairman of the town of Northfield. “Sand mines coming in haven’t been too popular, but something like this is different and I think will be greatly appreciated and respected.
“They have been very open with us and given us all the information we’ve wanted,” he added. “I hope this works for them. We can’t wait to see how all this works.”
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