Rushing Waters Aquaponics Feasibility Study

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2015: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 02/15/2017
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:

Information Products


  • Vegetables: greens (leafy)
  • Animals: fish


  • Production Systems: aquaponics

    Proposal summary:

    This project aims to add a cold water aquaponics system to Rushing Waters Trout Farm (the largest in Wisconsin), to provide Organic plant production and phosphorous effluent purification.

    With its outstanding feed conversion rate, small physical footprint, and superfood product, aquaculture farming promises to play a huge role in the future of human food consumption.

    That said, modern aquaculture faces three major problems:

    • Runoff from flow-through aquaculture facilities places a significant load on our watersheds.
    • Non-flow-through aquaculture operations have yet to prove profitability.
    • Producing affordable feeds requires the harvesting of small ocean-caught fish, which disrupts the food chains on which our seafood industry depends.

    This project aims to provide a viable solution to two of these problems.

    Rushing Waters Trout Farm produces the largest output of rainbow trout in Wisconsin, as well as directly providing approximately 40 jobs to rural Jefferson County residents. A flow-through aquaculture operation, it uses the output of two large springs to raise 100 tons of fresh and packaged fish fillets per year, which it sells through the Trout House Restaurant as well as to Roundys and Whole Foods.

    Rushing Waters operates in the Rock River watershed, and is one of only two farms subject to the DNR's Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) regulations as part of the Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (WPDES).

    While Rushing Waters leads the industry in sustainability by eliminating chemicals and hormones from our water, the effluent that leaves the farm still contains enough phosphorous that we will begin to struggle to meet Wisconsin’s nation-leading TMDL guidelines as they tighten over the coming years.

    We applaud the DNR’s efforts and share their concerns about the quality of our watersheds. However, currently available options for meeting these goals leave much to be desired. The recirculating aquaculture paradigm provides the only proven method for solving our effluent phosphorous problem. Unfortunately, no recirculating aquaculture farms that we’re aware of in the US have yet proven financial sustainability (though many have tried).

    Aquaponics seemed like the great green hope for our future, but after many years of searching and hearing that it could not work in our cold-water flow-through context, we had nearly given up.

    Then, one day, a barber from Madison having lunch at The Trout House handed me a business card with the tagline “Aquaponics for Cold Climates.”

    Jeremiah Robinson spent the past three years at Frosty Fish Aquaponic Systems researching all the existing available methods for operating aquaponics in cold climates. Finding that they all came up short from a sustainability perspective, he combined a number of existing paradigms with some innovations all his own, to develop a viable solution to the challenges of cold weather and cold water.

    His methodology combines the aquaculture principles developed by Dr. Steve Sommerfelt with some recent and surprising discoveries about aquaponics made by Dr. Kenneth Semmons, and adds in the results of his own experiments with cold water nitrification and mineralization, to produce a profitable and effluent-purifying aquaponics design.

    This design would remove almost all phosphorous from the effluent - greatly surpassing the DNR guidelines - as  well as produce tens of thousands of leafy green Organic vegetables and herbs as a byproduct.

    It could expand the Wisconsin's largest rainbow trout farm into the world’s largest aquaponics farm.

    This grant would fund a feasibility study to determine whether the proposed aquaponics farm would be truly sustainable – both environmentally and economically. The study would cost approximately $62,700.

    Success would make Wisconsin even more of a world leader in sustainable food security.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The environmental benefits to this approach are clear and well-defined. We will define success as a reduction in our phosphorous effluent rate to the DNR-defined 2024 TMDL limit of 0.075 PPM (mg/L) by reusing our mineral-rich fish waste in order grow vegetables.

    From an economic perspective, this feasibility study will prove or disprove the financial viability of our approach to aquaponics. We will define financial viability as a 12% net profit margin.

    The social benefit to this aquaponics operation, if successful over the long term, will include approximately 80 local jobs, including about 35 for mentally handicapped individuals. The operation will draw tourists from around the country to Jefferson County and the Kettle Moraine area. It will also serve as a model for other flow-through cold water aquaculture farms around the world.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.