A chef’s dish inspires a grand tour of Michigan’s local food movement 

Anatomy of a meal

Page 2 of 3

The trout farmer

Rigato's trout come from land, not sea. Specifically, they come from a partially wooded 90-acre farm of rolling hills outside Jackson. It's where Indian Brook merges with the Sandstone Creek, before the waters run on to the Grand River. It's Indian Brook Trout Farm, where president Owen Ballow, 55, is on the cutting edge of aquaculture.

Though the farm has only been open for 14 months, Ballow has a million rainbow trout in the water right now — not a figurative million but an actual amount — and is only at 10 percent of his capacity. Once the fish grow larger, the operation could harvest about 750 tons of fish a year. And the fish can't grow fast enough. Ballow says, "We're struggling. We run out of fish at the end of every month."

What makes Indian Brook so special is the water for the fish comes right out of the largest fresh water aquifer in Michigan, which runs 180 feet below the surface of his property. In fact, the farm is right by the Absopure bottling plant, which is there for the same reason. Ballow says he looked for a site like this for eight years, and had the good fortune to meet a hydrogeologist who gave him tips on where these underground streams are. The water flows out of the ground and into the trout farm's tanks without any pumping — 3.2 million gallons a day of it.

The free-flowing water not only helps reduce the farm's carbon footprint, but provides finicky rainbow trout with the high quality of water they need. Also, since the water comes up from below the frost line, it doesn't change temperature with the seasons, which is a setback for fish farms fed with rivers or creeks. Ballow says, "In the winter, when the water is in the 40s, the fish don't grow, they don't eat, they sort of hibernate. But because our water is coming out of the ground, it's 51 degrees year-round. So the fish grow in a year and are ready for market. In a lot of other places, it takes about a year-and-a-half."

And after the water has gone from ground to tank, the farm lets the water go back downstream. Far from being a waste product, Ballow says the water "recharges the drinking water table, so everyone downstream of us gets better drinking water."

The fish are hatched in a few indoor structures on the property. (Ballow says the fish don't do well out in the open at first: "Until they're about 5 or 6 inches they're just really skittish and afraid of everything.") Outside, grown fish are transferred to long narrow ponds lined with food-grade material, which makes it easy to vacuum up fish waste for fertilizer. But the majority of Ballow's fish are raised in 30-foot diameter round tanks that have circular water flow. Even that is designed to the fish farmer's advantage: Ballow says, "On the outside of the circle is where the greatest current is, so while the fish are eating they're working the hardest. As they get full, they sort of float back to the middle where there's less current, so they're not burning all their energy up trying to keep into the current."

He adds, "We're going to have 80 of those tanks when we're done with construction, so we'll rear specific groups of fish for specific customers. Some customers like bigger fish, some like smaller fish."

Right now, the fish get feed that's more mostly plant-based, with about 10 percent fish meal, but researchers have developed a soybean that fish can break down. The achievement of raising vegetarian fish may not mean much to diners, but it's an innovation Ballow says will allow him to get all his feed from within the state. He says he planted a test crop of the non-GMO soybean in Saline last year and it thrived.

The aquaculture pioneer

Rigato's shrimp come from another aquaculture trailblazer. His name is Russ Allen, 67, and his shrimp farm, Environmental Conscious Aquaculture, aka ECA Farms, is located in a 5,000-square-foot pole barn he built behind his house in Okemos. He calls it his "R&D building," since he's been researching processes to farm shrimp domestically in a way that is "environmentally stable and biosecure" — and make it competitive with overseas shrimp farms.

Those foreign shrimp farms are something Allen knows a thing or two about. He spent more than 20 years in Central America helping build the aquaculture industry in that part of the world. He says, "I was one of the pioneers of the worldwide shrimp industry in Ecuador, pretty much one of the few guys that helped get it started back in the '70s. After 10 years in Ecuador, I went to Belize and built the first shrimp farm in Belize." He has worked in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala as well. In Ecuador alone, he built about 4,000 acres' worth of shrimp ponds.

But Allen has spent more than 20 years trying to find a way to farm shrimp that is as large scale as the operations he helped build while being environmentally responsible. He says, "I started out with a garage-sized thing to address all the initial parameters: finding the right species of shrimp, the right feeds, the right stocking densities, the right temperatures and salinities. ... My goal was to do it all indoors, with 100 percent recirculating water, and no effluents coming out of the system at all."

By "effluents," Allen means shrimp waste. And though it can be harnessed, doing so is an added cost other fish farmers don't face. He says, "When you're competing with wild fisheries in countries where there's no EPA, they don't treat their effluents and it just goes out into the oceans, lakes, rivers of the world. But we can't do that here."

With the appropriate backing, Allen says he could expand his system and make it commercially viable. But he remains a craft producer for now, churning out a mere 400 pounds a week, all of which is snapped up by Eat Naturally, an Ann Arbor company that distributes his shrimp to local chefs willing to pay dearly for Allen's bounty. Allen says, "I've got to charge a fairly high price for me to keep doing it. But if we can get that capital and we can go to a commercial size, by my calculation, we can grow shrimp cheaper than anywhere else in the world, right here in Michigan."

If that doesn't sound like a big deal, Allen points out that aquaculture has been the fastest-growing sector of agriculture worldwide for many years, and that the United States imports about 1.4 billion pounds of shrimp a year. Allen calls it "the biggest trade deficit in the food industry."

If the shrimp farmer can close his funding gap, he says he'd be able to grow millions of shrimp, and he and his wife have just bought 100 acres up around Manistee where he intends to develop the commercial project.

The sustainable farmers

Some of the produce in Rigato's dish comes from Sunseed Farm, a little bit of the country located on Boyden Drive in Ann Arbor. In addition to vegetable fields, the farm sports several hoop houses, most of them 3,000 square feet or larger, where the food can be grown all the way through winter. In good weather, it's often a bucolic scene, with dogs running around and even a few small goats browsing contentedly.

Co-founder Tomm Becker, 32, studied English literature at Michigan State University, but the farming bug bit him when he worked at a farm one summer outside Lansing. He soon picked up a job Michigan State's student organic farm, and worked as the production manager there for a few years. Now he and his wife live in Ann Arbor, where he's pursuing his dream of running a small farm and doing community-supported agriculture.

Of small farming, Becker says, "It's a great livelihood. It's the kind of job where you can use all different parts of your brain. I get to be a horticulturalist, but I also get to be an ecologist and a mechanic, and a carpenter and a manager and an accountant — sort of everything, and everything in between. It's a pretty good way to make a living, I think."

And make a living they do. What's more, all employees are paid a living wage. Becker says, "We want to hire good people, we want to attract the best, and we want to get by with a small, sort of elite squad of people. We've made a commitment to always be putting positive pressure on farm wages in our area, both in an effort to attract the best of people and just to sort of change the paradigm of farm labor."

What makes it work, of course, is having customers who'll pay more for quality, such as restaurants. Becker says, "We found a great group of clients, a bunch of families here in Ann Arbor and a bunch of restaurants who are willing to do business that way. ... On a regular basis we are working with the Root, Bacco Ristorante in Southfield, Chartreuse, Selden Standard, Zingerman's Deli, and the Grange, among others."

Sometimes, these clients will work with Sunseed Farm on a "declining balance system," in which the farm is paid upfront for a year's worth of produce. "So instead of us having to front-load all the expenses of producing their food for them," Becker says, "they sort of enter into a shared-risk situation with us. ... We can offer them a little bit more priority when it comes to accessing our product, and then just make sure that they get the good stuff."

These sorts of novel arrangements aren't uncommon among those fostering Michigan's local food economy, in which clients clamor for this week's batch of aquaculture shrimp or a homeowner's honey. Economically speaking, local food economies really punch above their weight, and Becker is eloquent on this point. He says, "Local economies do a lot for themselves. Food being sort of the basic need of us all, it's a great place to start when you look at building local economies. Just here in Washtenaw County, there's about a billion dollars worth of food that's purchased every year. You can imagine what would happen if we kept, say, 10 percent of that here in Washtenaw County, how that would change our local food system and our local economy. ... Then there's the environmental impact of 'food miles,' of buying food from California or from other places. When you're purchasing food locally, you have the ability to make a more informed decision about how you're investing your food dollars."

That concern about the environment is part of the farm's mission. Becker says that, though Sunseed isn't certified organic, it adheres to strictly organic practices. "We don't use any synthetic pesticides or highly toxic or persistent pesticides," he says. "They're naturally derived. And we're really careful with how we use those, just in keeping with our greater mission of stewarding the farm ecosystem that we have."

The farm may stick to only the best practices, paying employees well, avoiding deadly pesticides, using heirloom and non-GMO seeds, and building healthy soil, but what Becker says sets his produce apart is that it's picked fresh and rushed to the user. He says, "The stuff that you're getting from the grocery store is probably gonna be at least a week old, and it's been handled along the way — so it's been in a truck, it's been in the coolers, it's changed hands a couple times, and it takes its toll. Leaves live on plants, and when you take them off the plant, they don't last super long. They're gonna lose a lot of their flavor."

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