Eating Close to Home with Farm-Raised Fish
By Vanessa Herald | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
We love our iconic Wisconsin farm scenery with rolling hills and historic red barns and…spring fed ponds of fish? Believe it or not, Wisconsin has a long history of aquaculture, or fish farming, and now is the perfect time to get hooked on sustainable, healthful, farm-raised fish.
Maybe aquaculture doesn’t look the same as idyllic, pastoral images of cows grazing green pastures, but it’s every drop as important to the agricultural landscape of family farms and the sustainable food production we love about where we live.
“We’re missing opportunities to eat fish raised responsibly and closer to our plates,” says Kathy Kline, outreach specialist with Eat Wisconsin Fish. “We have a fish deficit in the United States. Ninety percent of the fish we eat is imported. Even though some people have a perception that wild fish are better, we simply can’t produce enough wild fish to meet the demand.” Lucky for us, Wisconsin is stocked with aquaculture producers working hard to make up that fish deficit. “As with most of our food, the solution is right here in our backyard.”
Kline and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute recognized the deep knowledge gap between our cultural love of fish—just think about the traditional Friday fish fry—and our knowledge of where fish come from. “As Wisconsin eaters, we are such big fans of locally grown foods but aren’t connected to all the great fish options in the state.” Thanks to a Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin Grant from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, the Eat Wisconsin Fish program evolved to educate consumers about purchasing local fish raised on farms that use sustainable practices.
There are two main practices for raising fish in Southern Wisconsin, and both see commercial success. There are outdoor systems that mimic nature by raising fish in ponds that have natural water sources flowing through them, and indoor systems that hold fish in tanks and recirculate water in a closed loop. Since water use is highly regulated by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, all fisheries are held to high environmental standards for keeping water clean and minimizing nutrients added to the environment. Combine this with the fact that fish have a very efficient feed conversion ratio (the rate at which they translate pounds of feed into edible meat for human consumption), and Wisconsin-grown fish are not only delicious, but also sustainable by most measures.
“We are encouraging people to play with their food. To touch their food. To get reacquainted with farming, and to do it in a fun atmosphere,” says Peter Fritsch of Rushing Waters Fisheries, nestled near the Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest in Palmyra. Just an hour southeast of Madison, Rushing Waters is the largest rainbow trout farm in the state, but it’s much more than just a production farm. “Our goal is to continue to educate the consumer and show them we have a great product raised with healthy practices,” he says. Visitors to Rushing Waters have every opportunity to experience this first-hand through farm tours, fishing for trout, viewing the onsite processing facility, purchasing fresh fish at the farm store, or dining at the Trout House Restaurant.
Back in 1994, Bill Graham purchased Rushing Waters Fisheries with a vision ahead of its time. He wanted to connect eaters directly with the source of their food by operating not only a fishery, but also a restaurant and seafood shop on-site to bring people out to the farm. Fritsch joined the team in 1997 and brought his own goals to eliminate chemical use on the farm, improve water quality and advance feed quality for the fish. Working diligently toward these goals, the farm has been operating chemical-free since 1999, the Trout House Restaurant opened in 2013, and recently the farm made a switch to GMO-free feed—firmly achieving their collective vision for the farm.
The trout spend their whole life on the farm thanks to the on-site hatchery and elaborate system of 56 stream-fed ponds, where fish are constantly sorted and grouped by size until they reach maturity. The naturally cold waters allow the fish to grow slow and healthy, taking 15 to 17 months to reach about one pound. “It’s rewarding when customers respond positively to the fish,” says Fritsch, “since we’re talking about an egg that starts 150 yards from where I am right now, and in 15 months can be enjoyed at the restaurant 30 yards from here. It goes through its entire life cycle without leaving the farm.”
Similarly, Nelson and Pade, Inc. focuses on highquality fish production, environmental sustainability and educating consumers. But that may be where the comparisons end. Rebecca Nelson and John Pade are innovators in the world of aquaponics, an indoor, closed-loop system that simultaneously grows fish in tanks and vegetables suspended in a soilless medium on the surface of the water. The fish and plants work together to maintain the system: fish nutrients fertilize the plant crops, and in turn, the plants filter and clean the water for the fish. Because aquaponics systems are a closed loop, they provide year-round production, efficient use of water, and eliminate waste products from entering the broader environment.
“For both John and I, it goes back to the things that interested us as kids,” says Nelson. “I loved fish. Fishing, swimming with fish, raising fish. And I grew up in a family that loved food and gardening.” And after seeing a display about a soilless food production system at Epcot Center, they were both hooked. “As adults, we both wanted to find a way to connect other people with quality food. And this was it.”
Working first in plant-only hydroponics in the 1990s, they eventually added fish to their systems and returned to Wisconsin in 2006. In 2009, they brought life to their current Montello facility, an hour north of Madison, where they produce tilapia, bluegill and walleye, as well as salad greens, kale, chard, herbs and tomatoes. Their products are available at the on-farm stand, in local grocery stores, restaurants, and even local school districts and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point campus.
Like Rushing Waters, Nelson and Pade is more than just a fish farm; it’s a valuable member of the community. The Montello site is half commercial fishery and half demonstration site to educate an international audience about successful aquaponics production. Everyone from small-scale home producers to future commercial growers participate in tours, classes and the Nelson and Pade Grower Program to learn how to use an aquaponics system with success. The site is also shared by the UW-Stevens Point Aquaponics Innovation Center, researching crop diversification for industry advancement and providing opportunities for students to earn an aquaponics certificate and pursue a profession in the field.
“We’re proud to deliver a high-quality product grown right here,” says Nelson, who knows every input used in their farming system. She knows first-hand their fish are raised in an environment with impeccable water quality and using non-GMO feed. Because of this, she says, “The result is clean, great-tasting fish that is also a choice for sustainability.”