Wisconsin could soon be a source of Atlantic Salmon, thanks to an entrepreneur who found a niche — and a bubbling spring just a mile east of the Mississippi River.
Kent Nelson, who owns a Prairie du Chien sawmill with his two brothers, is using the spring water to raise an estimated 30,000 Atlantic salmon. His first crop of 2- to 2½-pound, 2-year-old fish will be harvested this summer, and a new batch of 35,000 eggs will be hatched this spring, the Wisconsin State Journal reported Sunday.
The fish is native to the north Atlantic Ocean, but more than 90 percent of Atlantic salmon consumed in the U.S. is imported from farms in Chile, Norway, Scotland and Canada.
Nelson's Fish Farm is believed to be the only Midwestern business raising Atlantic salmon.
"I think he's got an excellent operation. He's got what I would call a small, niche market facility," said Ron Johnson, an aquaculture outreach specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Extension. "Kent is trying something different. Because of the buy local, buy fresh initiatives, the general public is looking for quality food products that are grown locally. And the Nelsons are tying into that."
Johnson said aquaculture is a $7 million-a-year business in Wisconsin, less than 1 percent of the U.S. market. There are 211 privately owned commercial fish farms in Wisconsin. Most raise trout, but some raise yellow perch, panfish and, more recently, tilapia.
The Nelsons' 70 acres of land was a dairy farm until the 1940s. Then, ponds were created and the property was home to a trout farm for 30 years. When the Nelsons purchased the property in 1990, the ponds were surrounded by brush.
In 1992, the Nelsons restocked the ponds with rainbow trout, but knowing the market was crowded, they began searching for salmon eggs in 2010.
"As a cold-water state, pretty much everybody's raising trout," said Nelson. "We're hoping (Atlantic salmon) will be a better seller."
So in 2012, the Nelsons spent $4,500 to buy 35,000 salmon eggs. The eggs hatch anywhere from a week to a month, and once the fish reach 3 inches, which takes three to four months, they are transferred to one of the narrow outdoor raceways.
"The trout, you basically try and get an inch a month. Salmon are a little slower," Nelson said. "They're not as aggressive, at least here, anyway. This is only my first bunch so maybe the next bunch will go better. They're supposed to be raised in saltwater, so it's a challenge all the way around."
Nelson got a second batch of salmon eggs last year, but they all died when the fish refused to eat his feed.
He also has had problems with bald eagles and great blue herons, and a few weeks ago, ducks pulled up watercress near the spring house. The remains clogged a pipe and reduced the flow of water — leaving the salmon gasping for air.
"I was lucky I was home," Nelson said. "They're a lot more finicky and fragile."
But Nelson says unlike trout, which need constant, cool water, Atlantic salmon can better tolerate warmer water.
"It's a beautiful fish," Nelson said. "I hope we can sell them."