May 28, 2021
At the Midwest’s Superior Fresh, a synergy of salads and salmon
There’s nothing fishy about it – except for the salmon.
Tank-raised fish add natural fertilizer to the water at Superior Fresh LLC, a grower of organic greens and sustainable cuts of salmon.
The Northfield, Wisconsin, operation markets itself as the world’s largest aquaponics farm, growing USDA-certified organic greens while raising sustainable salmon.
“Being deeply immersed in the industry, both from academia, scientific and market industry … our research hasn’t found anyone on the globe at our scale, and we have data that even showcases our output annually is greater than all other aquaponic facilities in the United States combined,” said Nate Hefti, Superior Fresh vice president of sales. “We’re very proud of the work we do here every day, and at the scale we do it.”
A decade of investment
Founders began purchasing assets in about 2011, Hefti said, but the company was still just an idea, and key staff still hadn’t been added at the time.
As a concept, the greenhouse wasn’t immediately seen as part of the business.
“Karen Wanek, owner and co-founder, is passionate about healthy, sustainable food systems and she partnered with president Brandon Gottsacker to help bring her vision to life by bringing the technical aspects to Superior Fresh,” said Hefti. “Karen and Brandon began with a focus on healthy, local, sustainable seafood but their mindsets evolved when they began learning about so many other issues with global food systems. That is when the aquaponics model came to be and Superior Fresh re-focused on the integration of the greenhouse with the salmon.”
Superior Fresh broke ground on the facilities in 2015. While the salad greens are organically grown with hydroponics, the salmon-rearing facility is separate from the greenhouse.
“Our system is a ‘decoupled’ system,” Hefti said. “The fish are kept swimming in a perfectly controlled environment – which we call ‘The Fish House.’ This building sits adjacent to our greenhouse … We then have an infrastructure that allows for water and nutrient exchange.”
Together, it’s a closed-loop system that recycles water, he said. The salad greens grow on rafts of organic media. Natural light is supplemented, especially in the Midwestern winters, by efficient LED lighting. The entire greenhouse, fish house and office space take up about 15 acres.
So far, it’s all gone, well, swimmingly.
“No aquaponics system is created equal, and they are very complex production systems no matter the scale,” Hefti said. “Our approach at Superior Fresh seemed to be much different than most because we came at this system holistically. We’re creating optimal environments for both our fish and our plants, and then carefully balancing the ecosystem to be beneficial to both growth cycles.”
Hefti compared aquaponics systems to those existing in nature.
“The two food systems share water like crops and lakes/rivers would in nature, doing their work of cleaning, oxygenating and creating nutrients for one another, he said. “This ‘circle of sustainability’ allows us to conserve significant amounts of water compared to traditional farming and allows for a complex ecology of beneficial bacteria that are what truly make the farm work.”
While it took the company a few years to hire and build, the results are worth the wait, Hefti said.
“It’s been a long haul in the best way, like most things (in) farming, learning season over season and growing the knowledge, asset base, and land and facilities too,” he said. “It’s been a decade of investment.”
Earning the organic certification is an important part of the company – and isn’t taken for granted.
“It is a symbol that shows that we are caring for our plants, our people, and our planet,” Hefti said. “The health of all of these things is extremely important to us and we want our products to resemble that and our customers to know it. Healthy vegetables that do not need to be sprayed with pesticides and seafood that doesn’t need to be treated with antibiotics is a no-brainer.” (Superior Fresh salmon isn’t organically certified but does carry other certifications for Best Aquaculture Practices, or BAP, and Salmon Welfare, Hefti said.)
Soilless growing systems including hydroponics remain part of USDA’s National Organic Program after the USDA’s March win in a lawsuit brought by the Center for Food Safety (CFS). The lawsuit didn’t aim at aquaponics specifically and, in an interview last year with Organic Grower, a CFS lawyer even distinguished aquaponics from hydroponics, for aquaponics having a “cycling of nutrients.” But Hefti wasn’t ashamed to link the two terms.
“Aquaponics by definition is hydroponics. … You cannot be aquaponic without growing hydroponically,” he said. “We stand strong in the reality that these systems, depending on whole farm plans of course, are certifiably organic. Believing that farming hasn’t always been about understanding innovation and adaptation has us at a loss; the only way to make an aquaponics system truly work is to embrace the natural, beneficial bacteria that thrive in the systems. This natural ecology, although hard to see and completely understand, is a critical component of the systems.”
The company also has a sustainability commitment to regenerate 800 acres of soil that aren’t used for food production. Extra “beneficials” from the fish operation and greenhouse are applied to the acreage by staff and volunteers, Hefti said.
“You’d be hard-pressed to look at our entire farm and not be blown away by our soil health as a result of our farming practices, on 800 acres of land,” he said. “In the big picture, that’s soil health restoration of 785 more acres than we ask anything of to produce food.”
Finally, there’s the argument that soilless growing methods allow more organic produce to be grown, thus reaching more people.
“We fight for the belief that local organic food needs to be accessible for all communities, not a privilege but a standard availability,” Hefti said. “A great example of our commitment to this is our partnership with Kwik Trip. With more than 700 retail locations they can serve many small, rural communities across the Midwest with healthy food options such as Superior Fresh organic salads. For many small towns, Kwik Trip is the daily grocery run. We’re so thankful their distribution network is making our USDA organic salad more accessible.”
Hefti said controlled environment agriculture is noted for increased food safety compared to open-field growing.
“We also have strict bio-security processes and procedures in place to mitigate risk and improve food safety,” he said. “We have in-house and third-party testing and audits to make sure we are upholding the strictest of standards.”
Superior Fresh’s products are available in the Midwest and East, and besides Kwik Trip, are found at retailers such as Fresh Thyme, Festival Foods, Trigs, Sendiks, Plum Market, Mom’s Organics, Cub and Whole Foods.
“We owe a tremendous amount of our success and gratitude to our customers and consumers who are very educated about the food they buy,” he said. “They are also very strict when it comes to buying product that fits their morals and values. Their commitment to seeing our process and believing in and supporting our organic methods has made all the difference.”
Many hydroponic greens growers have popped up in the Midwest and East over the last few years. But while it’s tempting to pit the eastern newcomers against the western broadacre growers, for Hefti, the situation is a little more complex.
“We hope local is always a movement, for economies, access, food and the planet,” he said. “People want to feel connected, want to know that they’re not contributing to horrible carbon footprints; they want the opportunity to support local economies and food ethos. We get that. We’re all about that! Food that considers all the stakeholders. We get that food systems will always be an ‘and,’ not just an ‘or.’
“We need local and travelled fresh produce,” he added. “Let Idaho raise great trout, Mexico can send us their amazing tomatoes, and we’ll keep doing our part here, too. It takes commercial and small growers, it takes some oceanic fishing and some farming to protect our resources. Food systems cannot be monolithic answers, it’s all about collaborative, transparent systems, and solutions that consider all the stakeholders.”