PALMYRA — Peter Fritsch has some great ideas for expanding the Rushing Waters Fisheries trout farm he runs in the Kettle Moraine State Forest here.
He'd like to attach a restaurant with seating for 40 to 50 onto the main building. He wants to include tours of his 80-acre property, which includes 56 natural spring-water ponds teeming with rainbow trout. Fish boils, clambakes, dinner 'round a campfire and guest chefs would complete the ambience for events at the state's largest trout farm.
"We'd want it to be more than a dinner," said Fritsch, president of Rushing Waters. "We want it to be an experience."
He admits his attitude has changed since Gov. Scott Walker in April signed the Aquaculture Bill, which relaxes regulations that were among the most stringent in the country and, Fritsch said, threatened to kill the industry in the state. "Before that bill was signed, I was thinking of moving to Iowa," Fritsch said.
Ron Johnson, an aquaculture outreach specialist for the UW-Extension, called it extremely important legislation because it reduced regulations without harming the environment or increasing health risks. He said he knows several fish farmers who, like Fritsch, are looking to expand or start a business.
"That will allow the farmers to compete at a much better price rate," said Johnson. "We're just poised for growth in Wisconsin. We've always been on the cutting edge of things and sometimes by doing that we take two steps forward and one back, but I think over the next couple of years you're going to see some real numbers in production increase."
Aquaculture is an important state industry. Johnson produced data from UW-Extension and the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, showing the approximately 2,500 aquaculture farms in the state generate $14 million in sales.
That ranks Wisconsin 20th in the country and first among nine Midwest states. Wisconsin also ranks second in baitfish sales, sixth in game-fish sales and ninth in trout production.
But those numbers barely make a dent in total U.S. aquaculture sales. Johnson said about 85 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported.
"Of that, 50 percent is farm-raised," he said. "Wisconsin fish farms only produce about 2.3 percent of the total value of seafood consumed in Wisconsin. We can only go up with those numbers."
The Aquaculture Bill, which unanimously passed the Legislature, helps that growth. First, it killed the requirement that aquaculture farms purchase a natural water body permit every 10 years. Since the permit no longer expires, banks and other potential lenders won't be as reluctant to invest.
It also no longer forces fish farms to spend thousands each year to meet the same regulations as municipalities and waste-water treatment plants. Instead, like in most states, they are now aligned with federal clean-water standards for aquaculture.
All the positive changes the bill created "are staggering," said Fritsch, who worked closely with the Legislature on the bill.
July 21 has been declared Aquaculture Day in Wisconsin and will include several fish farms offering tours and cooking demonstrations.
State aquaculturists need to tout the cleanliness of their water and the lack of chemicals going into them compared to their Asian counterparts, observers say.
And they need to refute comments made by the Alaska salmon industry about how farm-raised salmon in the continental U.S. doesn't rate in terms of taste and nutrients with wild salmon caught in Alaska.
"But 60 percent of those salmon caught in Alaska started their lives in hatcheries. It's a marketing game," said Johnson.
Also, although Idaho sells the most farm-raised trout, Wisconsin trout farmers have a reputation for producing trout with the best taste. That is backed up by chefs of top restaurants in Wisconsin who use them.
L'Etoile's Tory Miller uses trout from the Artesian Trout Farm in Westfield. He said it's always among his most popular entrees. Miller checked out trout from around the country before deciding on Artesian's fish.
Peter Sandroni, chef and owner of La Merenda in Milwaukee, has used Rushing Waters' trout ever since he opened in 2007. He said he loves the taste of the trout and the fact that Rushing Waters produces trout year-round because their ponds remain 48 degrees, no matter the season.
His restaurant makes international tapas — or small plates — with an emphasis on local food.
But Sandroni also cooks with Rushing Waters' trout at home. He likes to sautee it and top it with brown butter.
"The brown butter has a nutty taste to it and that nuttiness of the brown butter vs. the sweetness of the fish is just phenomenal," he said.
Sandroni's toughest critics agree. "My 2-year-old and 4-year-old just love the Rushing Waters trout that way," he said.