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Blue Water Farms wants to make Red Wing property the home of its walleye farm

The company wants to operate a walleye hatchery and aquaponic operation in a city-owned building that's sat vacant for 17 years.

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Blue Water Farms 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 at a city-owned property at the junction of Highways 61 and 19.
Noah Fish / Agweek

RED WING, Minn. โ€” Blue Water Farms , a startup with the plan to use recirculating aquaculture systems technology to produce walleye and plant products, wants to begin work to move into a city-owned building, and do so quickly.

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.

Blue Water Farms is looking to do that on a city-owned property at the junction of Highways 61 and 19, which housed Central Research Laboratories until 2006, when the Port Authority moved the lab due to a deteriorating structure.

Public discourse

Before the Red Wing City Council entered a closed meeting to discuss the potential sale of the property to Blue Water Farms on May 8, almost all of the public comments referred to the Blue Water Farms proposal to buy the building.

Steve Nelson, a retired high school science teacher, said he was excited when he first read about the Blue Water Farms proposal, but became concerned when he heard they would be raising walleye.

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"To bring those fish, those wild fish, into a system like that necessitates converting what they've been eating to a dry food source, and walleyes don't convert to a dry food source very easily," he said.

Nelson also questioned the waste generated by the fish, if the project would be using city water, and said there would most likely be an odor associated to the farm.

George Schneider, a Red Wing resident, expressed his approval of the Blue Water Farms project. He'd recently attended a May 3 presentation that the organization gave to local business leaders and community members.

At the May 3 presentation, Dean Dovolis, president of the board for Blue Water Farms, said the farm would open around 30 jobs right away and more in the future.

Blue Water Farms image.png
Rendering of walleye facility
Contributed / Blue Water Farms

Dovolis said before the Red Wing City Council or Port Authority had asked to see a full presentation of the project, other communities had reached out to them about potential locations. He said Blue Water Farms wants to include the building in the purchase agreement, but the process of moving forward needs to happen this month.

"This has been in the works for two years," Schneider said of Blue Water Farms.

Schneider took issue with the project only being discussed by the Port Authority and Red Wing City Council in closed meeting formats and said that was unlike other conversations in recent years with city buildings including the Jefferson and St. Johnโ€™s buildings in Red Wing.

"We have been denied public disclosure. And I think we need to have public and open airing about this," he said.

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He referred to Nelson's comments before him, regarding the waste.

"I don't know if he knew that the waste goes to produce, but nobody knows," Schneider said.

He implored residents to look into the company Superior Fresh, based in Hixton, Wisconsin, which 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.

"They deal with waste, and they deal with everything that's used," he said. "There's zero runoff, zero environmental damage or risk. So I just would like to hear more, particularly from specifically from the Port Authority, why don't we know."

Also a speaker at the city council meeting was Tom Drazkowski, chair of the board of directors for Red Wing Ignite, an innovation center that helped Blue Water Farms get funding. Drazkowski had met with Clarence Bischoff, founder and CEO of Blue Water Farms, as well as the founder and president of the Minnesota Aquaculture Association, along with a representative for Farmers Union Enterprises โ€” which comprises Farmers Union organizations in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wisconsin โ€” which is a supporter of Blue Water Farms.

"They described desire to build in Red Wing, and they showed some loyalty to Red Wing and Red Wing Ignite, because they have been helped so much with their support over the last two years," Drazkowski said. "They also conveyed to me that they're on a tight schedule as far as getting that building going and building out."

Drazkowski also addressed the concerns about odors from the farm.

"Goodhue County has a very, very strong ordinance in place," Drazkowski said of the county in which Red Wing is located in. "You are, as a council, responsible for the acquisition and disposal of land and property, and I would hope that when you go into private session, you discuss this, and come up with a yes or no answer for Blue Water, or some kind of a compromise solution for what they are asking. Because jobs and tax revenue should be the primary focus of the city council."

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Stephanie Rogers, executive director of the Anderson Center, and Dave Conrad, interim executive director of Creekstone Montessori School, spoke at the City Council meeting of concerns they had operating so close to the proposed site of Blue Water Farms.

"While we sympathize with the frustrations of community members who want to see development on the CRL property after 17 years, the Anderson Center board of directors would like more information in order to assess the impact, positive or negative, that the proposed aquaponics and hydroponics setup would have on our organization," Rogers said. "In the meanwhile, the Anderson Center respectfully requests that the City Council either table the request for the sale, or pursue the call for offers discussed at the Port Authority meeting on May 2."

Thomas Wilder, a financial adviser in Red Wing, said it was great to have public discussion of Blue Water Farms at the May 8 City Council meeting because the project had been "hidden" for a couple years.

"Please support entering into immediate negotiations, which will answer a lot of these questions, with the Blue Water group, and please do not make the same mistakes for the last 17 years this property has been vacant," Wilder said. "Red Wing has a huge opportunity in front of itself. The worst thing that can happen, in my opinion, is that it fails, and the property is back on the market with over a million-dollar renovations."

Wilder asked for council members Becky Norton and Evan Brown, who also serve as Port Authority board members, to recuse themselves of voting on the Blue Water Farms proposal at the May 8 meeting. Wilder said that Norton and Brown voted against the Blue Water Farms proposal at the latest Port Authority meeting, which was closed to the public.

"I believe they have a huge conflict of interest, of being able to vote on the same issue twice. If they were volunteers, that's one thing; however, they're paid to be on the board," Wilder said. "How can they suddenly jump into a different chair, put on a different hat โ€” oh, we're council people now โ€” and be expected to listen with neutral ears? The answer, of course, is they can't."

Wilder said that Red Wing City Council Attorney Amy Mace was "also compromised," considering her representation of both the Port Authority and the City Council.

Kim Beise, president of the Red Wing City Council, said there was "very little" he was able to share about what was discussed during the closed session on May 8, except that the council directed staff to work with Blue Water Farms to "clarify their proposal."

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Beise said the public could expect to hear about the Blue Water Farms proposal and how it will move forward, later this month.

"They have to work with Blue Water Farms, because their proposal is confidential, until things are nailed down," he said. "The final results won't be known for a couple of weeks."

He said this was the first time in his experience that a City Council member had ever been asked to recuse themselves from a vote because of their position on the Port Authority board.

"It's a requirement by the state statue that you if have a port authority, you have to have two council members on the port," Beise said. "Because they don't personally gain by anything that transpires on the port or in the council, they aren't required to recuse themselves. It's the same with the city attorney."

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He covers a wide range of farmers and agribusinesses throughout Minnesota and surrounding states. He can be reached at nfish@agweek.com

He reports out of Rochester, MN, where he lives with his wife, Kara, and their polite cat, Zena. He grew up in La Crosse, WI, and enjoys the talent from his home state like the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers and Grammy award-winning musicians Justin Vernon and Al Jarreau.
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