Progress for Minnesota's aquaculture industry slow but steady
Minnesota's aquaculture industry needs a state-funded comprehensive plan and more investor support to take the next step, according to the president of the Minnesota Aquaculture Association.
Clarence Bischoff has been part of the state's aquaculture movement from the very beginning.
Bischoff is the founder and president of the Minnesota Aquaculture Association and CEO of Blue Water Farms. He was recently a guest on the Agweek Podcast, where he shared his optimism for the aquaculture industry in Minnesota.
In the early 2000s, after retiring from a 35-year career in human resources, Bischoff started holding study groups on the "seriousness of global ecological issues." He said he quickly became aware that the main driver was the food production system.
"Since 2000, that's been a theme in whatever I've done, to find a way to provide our food in a sustainable way," said Bischoff. "And as I stayed with that topic, I discovered aquaculture."
The more he learned about aquaculture the more he realized how undervalued it was in Minnesota. He said in those early years, he could hardly find anybody who was even aware of aquaculture.
It took nearly two decades until representatives for aquaculture in Minnesota began to speak out and advocate for growth in the industry, said Bischoff. A moment he remembers feeling the momentum shift was in 2017, when the Minnesota Sea Grant program, a partnership of University of Minnesota-Duluth, sponsored a workshop on aquaculture.
As a result of that workshop and his own growing interest in aquaculture, Bischoff took steps in 2018 to create the Minnesota Aquaculture Association. The association is supported by industry member dues, scientists, volunteers and a team of seven volunteer board members.
Bischoff said he reached out to all major stakeholders shortly after MNAA began, and they've been a part of the conversations surrounding aquaculture since then.
"Now when we meet, I'm very happy to say that we have people there from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Sea Grant, Minnesota's Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI), and the state's DNR," said Bischoff.
Last month, AURI released a 111-page report detailing the opportunities and challenges for aquaculture in the state.
"Globally, aquaculture is one of the fastest-growing food industries," reads the report summary. "The key drivers are technological developments, increased production, and growing understanding of the health benefits of fish consumption."
Traditional ag producers could benefit from a future with a thriving aquaculture industry, said Bischoff. He said he's worked with scientists who have plans for growing aquaculture feed using plant products and insect meal. Minnesota farmers willing to try new crops could benefit from those opportunities.
Lobbying for a plan
Bischoff said that for the state's aquaculture industry to develop fully, Minnesota needs a comprehensive plan for growth. Although Minnesota does currently have an aquaculture plan, it is more than 30 years old and needs updating.
This fall, some of the state's aquaculture representatives sounded off before the Minnesota Legislature’s House Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee, in favor of a bill that would give $100,000 to the to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to create an aquaculture plan.
Aquaculture is a $5 million business annually in Minnesota, said Don Schreiner of Minnesota Sea Grant. About half of that is in the bait industry, with a quarter of it in fish stocking of lakes and rivers. The other quarter is for food fish for consumers.
Barry Thoele of Lincoln Bait, and the bait fish representative for the MNAA, said the bait fish industry is crucial to supporting tourism in the state. The industry also prevents having to import bait across state lines with the risk of introducing invasive species into Minnesota waters.
Bischoff said that Minnesota's small but active aquaculture industry is proof the model can work in the state.
"I'm happy to say we have at least a start," said Bischoff of aquaculture ventures in Minnesota.
"We've gotten great support from state agencies and local agencies," he said.
He said the aquaculture startups receive "great support" from state agencies and local agencies, but a statewide plan is needed to give the businesses the support they need to actually get running.
"It's a very critical need," said Bischoff of establishing a state aquaculture plan.
He said a state-funded aquaculture research center as well as a number of available technical and financial services would be needed in the plan.
"My personal goal would be to get a loan guarantee program included in that state plan," he said. "Because most financial institutions are not familiar with aquaculture, and they don't want to take the risk."
Blue Water Farms
The startup led by Bischoff, Blue Water Farms, is still working to iron out details for its planned indoor walleye production facility. It would be the first commercial facility to achieve the indoor production of walleye.
Blue Water Farms plans to use recirculating aquaculture systems technology, known as an RAS, to produce walleye and plant products.
"I've spent several years working with people, just thinking through the science and technology part of the business," said Bischoff. "We finally got through that, and now we're onto the marketing side and other business features."
The company's plan is 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.
Bischoff said he's in talks with the city of Red Wing, Minnesota, to plan for the facility to be located there on an 18-acre plot of land.
Blue Water Farms is in its final stages of putting together its business plan, said Bischoff, and reaching out to more potential investors.