WELCH, Minn. — Minnesota could be the home to the first commercial indoor walleye farm.
Blue Water Farms is a Minnesota-based startup with the plan to use recirculating aquaculture systems technology, known as an RAS, to produce walleye and plant products.
The company plans to operate a walleye hatchery, tanks for fish as they grow and processing facilities, as well as an aquaponic operation that produces lettuce, strawberries, cherry tomatoes, herbs and other products.
Clarence Bischoff is the founder and CEO of Blue Water Farms, as well as the founder and president of the Minnesota Aquaculture Association.
"We're fortunate that with Blue Water Farms, we have been able to organize a wonderful team of people," Bischoff said. "We have scientists and engineers, business experts of various kinds, and we're all ready to go to work to refine our business plan, and then raise the capital that's needed to implement the plans."
Launch Minnesota, an initiative spearheaded by Minnesota's Department of Employment and Economic Development, recently awarded Blue Water Farms with an innovation grant of $31,500. But Blue Water Farms will need a lot more help from other grants and investors to get its plan to become a reality.
"It takes a lot of money to set up a recirculating aquaculture system," Bischoff said. "Since we are introducing walleye to the seafood market from a RAS, we need to have a hatchery, and from the hatchery, the fish go to the growth facilities."
"It's really in alignment with the sustainability principles that are an essential part of our company," he said.
It may turn into his biggest, but Blue Water Farms isn't Bischoff's first successful startup. After retiring from a 35-year career in human resources, he said he became more aware of the "seriousness of global ecological issues", and started to form "Natural Step" groups, which is a framework for considering sustainability, hoping that would lead to influence on policy at the local level.
"And I had recognized early on that the main driver of the ecological issues is the way we produce our food, and it's not very well understood, I think in terms of the public narrative," he said. "So I thought, let's look at what we can do to change food production methods."
Bischoff quickly saw the need in Minnesota for sustainably raised fish, and landed on walleye instead of salmon, which was being raised as various other sites in the country already. Blue Water Farms would be the first and only commercial facility to achieve the indoor production of walleye.
Why haven't walleye been raised indoors? Well, Bischoff said there are many issues with raising the fish commercially.
"One of those issues is that walleye have a tendency to be cannibalistic," he said.
Bischoff credits Gregory Fischer, director of the Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, for figuring out answers to many of those issues. Fischer has given Bischoff a number of tours of the Wisconsin facility, and is now a part of the Blue Water Farms team.
"He has done just incredible work over many years," Bischoff said of Fischer.
Minnesota has room to grow when it comes to aquaculture, said Bischoff, and that sentiment is shared by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. In a letter from October 2020, Thom Petersen, MDA commissioner, shared his support for Blue Water Farms.
"Walleye is a coveted food fish here. The market possibilities are large if we can dial in the production needs of this emerging industry," Petersen wrote. "Blue Water Farms has proved to be a leader in the aquaculture field. The farm is involved in initiatives that are working to bring the aquaculture industry to the next level."
Just across the border, Bischoff said Wisconsin is a leader in the aquaculture industry. The company Superior Fresh, based in Hixton, Wis., is the largest commercial aquaponics facility in the world, and the first to use an Atlantic salmon species to raise leafy greens. The Superior Fresh facility is located on a 720-acre native restoration property in the Coulee Region, about 60 miles from the Minnesota border.
"Understanding that we're going to have 9 billion people on this planet in the next 30 years or so, we have to start thinking about how we're going to efficiently grow food close to the marketplace," said Brandon Gottsacker, CFO of Superior Fresh.
The Superior Fresh facility uses nitrate-rich water from fish held in the aquaculture tanks to fertilize and water leafy greens in its greenhouse. The company is able to grow fresh produce year-round while maintaining a water-sustaining zero-discharge. The state-of-the-art aquaponic center in rural Wisconsin was built in 2015 by the Wanek family, owners of Arcadia-based Ashley Furniture. The Waneks invested more than $100 million in the facility.
Jessica Coburn, vice president of executive coordination for Blue Water Farms, said the company is looking for that kind of investment to get its plan off the ground. She said they are looking to secure more grants but are putting more energy into getting direct investment and loans. On the investment side, she said there is a lot of enthusiasm in the industry.
"It is exciting, but because aquaculture is fairly new in the U.S., there's a lot of questions still remaining around it," Coburn said.
Her pitch to investors right now is simple.
"Walleye is a great fish to bring to market," Coburn said. "We think a lot about salmon and some of other popular food fish, but give walleye a look, because we're going to be bringing them to you in a more sustainable way."
"He's put together a team of excited individuals that have more than 20 years of experience, in many cases, and have direct experience with recirculating aquaculture systems and with breeding walleye," she said. "(Bischoff) is definitely driven by this dream to help our world do better, and what he brings to the table most of all, is that connecting of people and helping inspire them to do more."
Getting to collaborate with so many talented individuals and groups is what Bischoff enjoys most about the aquaculture industry.
"It has just been a very pleasant pleasure to be working with people not only on a national level, but people from Europe and from Vietnam, and other parts of Asia and South America." Bischoff said. "It's all forms of community, and everybody seems to be moving in the same direction of wanting to find a way to provide healthy fish and provide a good product for healthy people. And do it in a way that allows for a healthy planet as well."