A superior start

eagle's eye view of the Superior Fresh buildings.About a dozen UWL faculty toured Superior Fresh last summer and some have already started working on research-related projects with UWL students for the cutting-edge company. The startup in Northfield, Wisconsin, sits on a 720-acre native restoration property. Photo courtesy of Superior Fresh.

UWL alum joins startup at the frontiers of sustainable agriculture

UWL Alumna Kelsey Kotecki is working for a company that she calls “the way of the future.”

In May 2017, Kotecki joined a Wisconsin startup company that is exploring the frontiers of food growing — without soil or consistent sunlight. An aquaponics facility just outside of Northfield, Superior Fresh officially opened in August 2017.

In addition to expressing interest in UWL graduates like Kotecki, the company has also formed numerous partnerships with UWL faculty. Those partnerships are related to research and hands-on learning opportunities for students.

Kelsey Kotecki, ’16, says she was initially intrigued by Superior Fresh because the company had similar values related to living sustainably. A biology major with aquatic science concentration, Kotecki is now a lab technician in the Superior Fresh fish house and greenhouse. Photo courtesy of Superior Fresh.

Superior Fresh is the largest company of its kind in the world; it sits on 720 acres and employs a cutting-edge method of fish farming and water-based gardening. Waste from Atlantic salmon and rainbow trout supplies nutrients for lettuce, which is grown hydroponically. The result is a quality product for sale, virtually zero waste — and plenty of food for thought.

“As the world becomes more populated, I think this is the way to go,” says Kotecki. “I think it is important for people to see there are alternative and sustainable ways to grow food.”

Kotecki initially learned about the company in 2017 at the UWL Science Career Forum, an annual event that helps UWL students discover lab science-related careers and internships in the region. At the same event, Scott Cooper, UWL biology professor and director of Undergraduate Research, connected with Kurt Wagaman, general manager of Superior Fresh, about opportunities for partnerships with the university.

“I thought they were a very novel company — setting up aquaculture and hydroponics,” says Cooper. “And the company fits in with a lot of the green initiatives that I think many of our science students are interested in.”

The company has since connected with more than a dozen UWL faculty members related to research partnerships in subject areas from microbiology to entomology to business.

fish in a net.

At Superior Fresh 2,500 pounds of Atlantic Salmon are harvested each week and 800 pounds of Rainbow Trout. Photo courtesy of Superior Fresh.

UWL students are getting a hand on the future of food growing

Kotecki is grateful for UWL classroom experiences where she practiced the scientific method. In these classes she was challenged to develop a sound method to solve a particular question. She employs these skills frequently in her job today as a lab technician. She is responsible for testing water to ensure nutrients are at the correct level for the plants and fish to thrive, as well as microbial testing to follow the company’s food safety standards.

“In this job the answer is not given to us, we have to figure it out on our own,” she says. “These hands-on experience helped greatly in learning to apply myself.”

Now current UWL students are getting those same kind of hands-on experiences through collaborations with Superior Fresh. In a biology lab, students spent fall semester nurturing lettuce leaves from seedlings in dishes of water. Biology faculty Anita Baines and Tom Volk led the class in figuring out whether an additive in the growing process was worthwhile.

Lettuce growing in a small plastic dish. students pictured behind sitting.

Anita Baines, associate professor of biology, and Biology Professor Tom Volk had their class conducted a study to determine if an additive — a particular mix of microbes that improves plant growth — would be worth the investment for Superior Fresh. Their work was conducted fall semester.

Students worked through the scientific research process starting with answering a real-world question and ending with a presentation of the results to a client.

Sabrina Aspenson, a UWL graduate student in biology, says the class project provided a broader experience for her potential future doing lab research. “This experiment was all conducted through the students, including experimental design, running the tests and measurements, and doing the statistical analysis,” she says. “These are all useful tools to be able to do in the science world.”

Wagaman says it’s only natural that Superior Fresh would want to partner with universities nearby.

“We could send samples off to other labs, but we enjoy being able to be part of the learning process,” he says. “All it takes is one student who says, ‘I’m going to do this and become the next innovator in something huge.’”

Learn more about Superior Fresh

The Northfield facility is situated on a 720-acre native restoration property in the Coulee Region. The company started five years ago and harvested the first head of lettuce in July. Todd Wanek, president and CEO of Ashley Furniture, and his wife, Karen Wanek, are the owners.  Learn more at the Superior Fresh website.