Valley Bounty: Great Falls Aquaculture

Mar 18 2022

Published March 19th, 2022 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

By Jacob Nelson

Here’s a surprise: one of the biggest animal farms in western Massachusetts is in Turners Falls. Perhaps also a surprise – they raise fish.

“Our facility has been a fish farm since the 90’s,” says Spencer Gowan, general manager at Great Falls Aquaculture. “We’re an indoor aquaculture farm raising a species of southeast Asian sea bass called Barramundi.”

The name, ownership, and species grown at the farm have changed over the decades. Barramundi have been raised there since 2004 and Great Falls Aquaculture has been the managing company since 2018, but some of the farm’s staff go way back.

“I’ve worked here on and off since 2009,” shares Gowan, “but our facilities manager, Rocky Perham, was involved in building the first tank, so he’s been here over 30 years.”

How do they farm fish indoors? The method, Gowan explains, is to build a recirculating aquaculture system, which continually recycles water and filters waste while maintaining conditions for the fish to thrive.

Great Falls Aquaculture’s system holds up to three million gallons of water which cycles every hour. As it leaves the fish tanks, step one in the filtration process is removing solid waste with filters. Step two is to convert or remove the excess nutrients dissolved in the water.

“For that we use biological filters – big beds of fluidized sand that, as the water flows through, various bacteria, amoebas, a whole ecosystem of microbes really, feeds off all these nutrients and even destroys pathogens. When that ecosystem is nice and strong, you have crystal clear water coming out.” From there the water is reoxygenated and returned to the fish tanks.

Whether it’s Barramundi or hydroponic tomatoes, this kind of indoor farming – where plants or animals are separated from the broader ecosystem – comes with tradeoffs. The upside is increased control. For example, Gowan says, they can keep Barramundi healthier this way. They don’t have to deal with pests from the fish’s natural environment, can vaccinate them to reduce the need for antibiotics, and fish can’t escape and become an invasive species – no Finding Nemo reenactments here.

The downside is that farmers become fully responsible for giving their crops and animals every resource they need to thrive – food, water, waste management, climate control – that nature might otherwise provide freely.

Plus, control is different than understanding. “If you don’t know how you want conditions set, control doesn’t do you any good,” says Gowan. “We’re always learning. But the most important thing is keeping the fish as healthy as possible, and that we do understand quite well.”

Healthy fish grow fast, and Great Falls Aquaculture grows a lot of them. “Our main business is actually selling live fish,” he says, “mostly to specialty markets in Boston, New York City, Toronto and Vancouver, averaging around 20,000 pounds a week.”

Yet recently they’ve started selling some things locally, to diversify the business and build stronger connections with the local community, not just as an employer but as a food producer too.

“For a long time, people would ask me, ‘where can I buy your fish?’ and I’d have to say, ‘you can’t.’ But we don’t want to be that building on the hill that no one knows about. As much as there’s local demand for our fish, we’ll try to meet it.”

Locally sold products include their Barramundi, as well as Rainbow and Brook Trout raised by their sister company, Blue Stream Aquaculture. Fish and pre-cut filets are sold fresh, frozen, and smoked. Today, “River Valley Co-op and Green Fields Market carry our fish,” he says. “Atlas Farm Store in South Deerfield and Great Falls Harvest right here in Turners Falls carry some things too.” They also sell online via their website, and at the Greenfield and Turners Falls Farmers’ Markets most weeks over the summer.

“Barramundi is a fairly mild white fish,” says Gowan. “If you’re not usually a fish eater, this is a great place to start.” It has higher levels of fatty acids than most white fish, so it doesn’t dry out, and it takes on other flavors very well, making it a great foundation for all kinds of cuisines and cooking methods.

Gowan’s favorite is frying up crispy skin-on filets with a bit of seasoning. “Staff here fight over that when we have taste tests,” he says.

According to the USDA, Americans continue to eat more and more fish and shellfish. Yet depending on who you ask, 65% to 90% of that is imported. Comparing the sustainability of different fisheries is hazy at best, but even though there’s room for improvement, Gowan feels that well-managed recirculating aquaculture provides environmental and social benefits that other fisheries can’t offer.

“I see all the sustainability problems,” says Gowan, “because it’s my job to fix them. But as I learn more about the industrial food system, I think we’re doing a pretty good job.”

“I think about electric cars as a comparison,” he continues. “The technology is there, but there’s still problematic things to address. With electric cars, it’s mining rare earth minerals for batteries. For us, it’s feed and electricity – the more we can dial in our use, the more sustainable we can be.”

Great Falls Aquaculture uses a custom feed blend that avoids a classic pitfall of catching wild fish to feed farmed fish. Instead, they use byproducts of fish already being processed for human consumption, along with non-GMO grains and other ingredients.

On the electricity side, “this still requires more power than farming fish in the ocean,” Gowan acknowledges. “But we plan to put in anaerobic digesters that would take in food waste and produce electricity and heat for our buildings.”

Turning waste into valuable resources and building stronger connections with neighboring businesses are big goals Gowan has for Great Falls Aquaculture’s future. Anaerobic digesters are one example. Another is repurposing some of their own waste as fertilizer for local farms. He thinks their Fish Brew fertilizer will be more widely available soon.

“We’re different from most local farms,” says Gowan, “but we still want to be part of the local food community.”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about farms of all kinds and where to buy local food near you, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.

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