Rebecca Nelson always had a passion for raising fish; by the time she was ten, her family’s home was filled with aquariums. Her partner, John Pade, grew up on a dairy farm, learning a lot about livestock and agriculture. The two combined their skills and interests in 1984 when they founded an aquaponics company called Nelson & Pade Inc. Located in Montello, the company today creates new aquaponics technologies and systems while generating sustainably raised food for the Central Sands Region. It also provides training and support for aquaponics growers worldwide.
Aquaponics combines aquaculture (fish farming) with hydroponics (soil-less plant growing) through an integrated system. Large tanks hold fish that are fed pellets or other protein-rich food. As their water is refreshed, the old water passes through a biological filter and on to trays of growing media (usually a fine gravel) for plants. In the trays, nitrifying bacteria convert the waste ammonia from the fish into the nitrates vital for plant growth. The growing plants remove more and more of the nutrients, filtering the water until it is clean enough to return to the fish tanks.
In their 14,000-square-foot commercial greenhouse, Nelson & Pade Inc. utilizes cutting-edge technologies to grow tilapia, lettuce, herbs, tomatoes, kohlrabi, radishes, and other vegetables. The fresh fish and vegetables are made available at local farmers’ markets and sold to restaurants, retail stores, and schools in Montello and throughout Central Wisconsin.
“These systems allow us to produce food all year long while using less water, and no pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers. With little environmental impact, we can provide food in our communities and support local businesses,” explains Nelson.
The commercial greenhouse also houses the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point Aquaponics Innovation Center (AIC) and classroom. Since December 2014, AIC has been working with Nelson & Pade Inc. to further aquaponics research and technological development in areas such as optimizing walleye growth, investigating effects of certain pharmaceuticals on aquaponics systems, and tracking aquaculture farming in Wisconsin.
In conjunction with AIC, Nelson & Pade Inc. offers a popular, three-day Aquaponics Master Class with hands-on sessions that focus not only on aquaponic methods, but also on economic and business considerations. Over the past twenty years, the team has taught aquaponics to thousands of people from over a hundred countries.
As the industry continues to grow, Rebecca Nelson foresees a promising future where “aquaponics has the potential to change the face of agriculture [by] increasing the availability of fresh, nutritious food for people around the world.”