Superior Fresh President, Brandon Gottsacker, oversees a substantial indoor aquaponic operation (a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics) that raises steelhead trout and Atlantic salmon in a completely closed-system in eastern Wisconsin. The fish effluent water is repurposed to help grow organic leafy greens, which the company also sells. For every 1 ton of feed they get slightly less than 1 ton of salmon, and 10 tons of leaf lettuces, all of which offered to local customers and retailers.
TFF sat with Brandon to learn more about his cutting-edge aquaponics practices and Superior Fresh’s local land restoration projects.
Today’s Farmed Fish [TFF]: How do you raise your fish?
Superior Fresh [SF]: We raise land-based steelhead trout (the ocean-dwelling form of rainbow trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss) and Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) in a completely closed-system indoor aquaponic operation. We chose these fish because of their key nutrition attributes, like being an excellent source of omega-3s. We believe mother nature is the gold standard, so we strive to replicate her cycles and processes, but in a way that doesn’t tax our wild ecosystems. That belief is why we chose a more natural diet that was designed to mimic what salmon and trout eat in the wild; it’s even certified organic. It’s also why we facilitate a symbiotic relationship between our fish and our leafy greens – the water from our fish fertilizes our organic greens and the leafy greens reciprocate by filtering the water. Water can then be sent back to our fish and continue to serve the system. We believe that food grown in regenerative ecosystems is natural and will ultimately help us raise and grow delicious, nutritious food.
TFF: Tell us more about your best practices and forward-thinking projects.
SF: Our process converts 1 ton of fish feed into just under 11 tons of nutrient dense food, i.e. leafy greens and salmon. We are the only aquaponic system in the world to produce on a level that could even begin offsetting the volume produced with conventional systems. Food that would normally grow on 150 acres or more we can grow on 6! Beyond efficient conversion, our growing process is truly sustainable. We recirculate 99.9% of our water and have zero discharge from the production and processing systems. All organic byproduct is composted on our own farm. Our fish swim in clean, cold water filtered naturally by our leafy greens and are raised with the ideal number of fish per pool (little do people know but too few fish and the fish are stressed as well as if there are too many fish). We have a safe, clean environment, and thus don’t need to feed our fish antibiotics or pesticides. The sustainable ecosystem we’ve created helps us ensure our fish are naturally free from diseases or pests. We also have no need for vaccinations for the same reason! Our Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Steven Summerfelt, deserves a shout out for bringing in a wealth of knowledge and helped set many of our current best practices. It’s hard to know where we would be without his knowledge of how to create a stress-free, healthy environment for our fish.
Another facet of the business we are very proud of is our dedication to land conservation. Karen Wanek, one of our owners and a true servant leader, has been a champion for conservation on our team and ensures we are always keeping our mind on the big picture, our planet. Our facility sits on 800 acres but only uses 17 acres for production. What are we doing with the rest? Native habitat and land restoration. Our sister company, Freshwater Family Farms, is restoring our property back to the native Wisconsin habitat. Our partnership includes re-establishing prairie and forest terrain, removing invasive species, and reintroducing native animals and fauna. Species that haven’t appeared in decades have returned to our farm. Again, this is part of our belief that humans are meant to have an active role in nature’s ecosystem. Giving back and restoring the land is a big part of our vision.
TFF: How did you first get into aquaculture?
SF: My parents moved our family from Minneapolis, Minnesota to a small town in northern Wisconsin when I was 12 years old. Thankfully, our new home was on a lake, and I quickly fell in love with fishing and the outdoors. I played a lot of hockey, but I also fished nearly every day growing up. I took an aquaculture course my junior year at University of Wisconsin and fell in love with Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS). I was hooked. I buckled down into a Bachelor’s in Biology with an emphasis in fisheries and aquaculture. Shortly after graduation, I connected with Todd and Karen Wanek, who were in the early stages of exploring their passion for creating an environmentally friendly agribusiness. After traveling the world, the Waneks were personally convinced they needed to invest in creating a more sustainable food supply, for the planet and for people. We started talking about possibilities and the potential of aquaponics. The rest is history.
TFF: What do you think are the most pressing concerns within aquaculture today, and how do you want to see the industry move forward?
SF: We are what we eat, right? Well, so is our food. When we started, we felt strongly that our fish deserved to be fed a certain standard of food. Everything we give our fish is certified organic and non-GMO from a certified sustainable feed supplier in Canada. We also feed our fish a certified organic antioxidant that is important for their health and gives them their rich, warm color. Our salmons’ diets closely matches the natural diet of their wild cousins. That unfortunately can’t be said for many farmed fish. Fish food meeting our standards is expensive and hard to find, but it contains much higher levels of the heart and brain healthy omega 3 fatty acids than commodity salmon diets. That results in higher levels of these essential nutrients in the fish that we raise. My hope is that our standard raises the bar for our industry. As demand for such feed increases, the supply will emerge.
Beyond the food grown, not all farming practices are kind to the environment. We chose land-raising because we don’t want to worry about causing undue stress to the ocean’s already taxed resources. The way we raise our fish ensures that escapements, and any possibility of becoming an invasive species, is impossible. We reclaim phosphorus and nitrogen to grow more healthy, organic food vs releasing nutrients unmitigated into the environment. Superior Fresh is restoring land and waterways vs contributing to sedimentation, soil erosion, and water pollution. We truly believe the way forward is our land-raised ecosystem model, a symbiotic relationship between plants, animals, and humans.
TFF: What do you think is the biggest pain point for consumers in taking a chance on eating farmed fish?
SF: Seafood is really the last frontier of agriculture. If we want seafood to be available to a growing population, we need to battle consumer misconceptions. People have a perception that farmed fish aren’t as healthy as wild fish. As I said earlier, we are what we eat. We feed our salmon and trout high levels of fish oil to ensure that the fatty acid levels in their fillets exceed levels found in wild sockeye salmon.
It’s also a reality that much of the United States population only has access to salmon that’s flown to them. When supply chains are disrupted and distribution stumbles, seafood supply is highly susceptible to interruption. What a shame as seafood has countless nutritional benefits. Salmon should be as accessible a protein as chicken, beef, or pork.
We’re just beginning to define and discover truly sustainable practices and closing the regenerative loop that includes humans. The way we produce food should be thoughtful. We believe the Superior Fresh model has introduced a new bar, and we’re proud of that.
TFF: How has the aquaculture industry changed to bring better products to consumers over the last decade?
SF: Historically, domestic farms have fed fish both antibiotics and pesticides, so an antibiotic-free, sustainable, traceable, and local alternative is something to be excited about. And I want to really emphasize local, having these fish close to new markets is long overdue and beneficial for both the consumer and the industry.
At the time I graduated in 2011, there were only a handful of land-based farms in the world. Superior Fresh was the first land-based RAS system in the US, and I think our production model is an example of the better yet to come.
TFF: From which producers would you gladly eat their farmed fish?
SF: I always pick a farmed fish from the US or Canada first. If I can’t get that, I look for North American wild salmon.
TFF: What is your favorite farmed fish dish?
SF: Grilled or smoked Atlantic salmon. No doubt.
TFF: Where can consumers find your product?
SF: Getting sustainable, nutritious, healthy food into the hands of people is core to our mission. Right now we’re in grocery stores throughout the Midwest, but you can purchase our salmon online via our webstore: https://www.superiorfresh.com/store.
TFF: What resources do you recommend for further research?
SF: Again a shout out to Dr. Steven Summerfelt – he has really been the resounding voice for land-based RAS, worldwide, for the last 20 years. Before joining the Superior Fresh family, he spent many years as the Director of Research at the Conservation Funds Freshwater Institute, and has contributed to a variety of scientific publications that I’ve found invaluable.