In a year continually marked by low prices for soybeans, an additional way to use the commodity is wonderful news in the industry.

Fish is a protein source for the future and South Dakota-produced soybeans can feed those fish. This fall, farmers will haul semi-loads of non-GMO soybeans for a new use in aquaculture feed.

An innovative company called Prairie AquaTech in Brookings completed construction on a production facility located near South Dakota Soybean Processors in Volga.

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Construction on the production facility in Volga was completed in June. 

The Volga plant is dedicated to producing ME-PRO™ — a plant-based protein ingredient developed for use in aqua feed. ME-PRO delivers exceptional performance for the aquaculture industry in that it is 70% protein, 100% digestible and has also been proven to reduce phosphorus discharge from operations. ME-PRO has been successfully used in aqua feed formulations around the world in multiple species, such as salmonids, bass, and shrimp.

Recently, Prairie AquaTech was named the 2019 winner of the internationally curated Aquafeed Innovation Award for Ingredients at an international conference in Cologne, Germany. The award was presented during the 2019 VICTAM International Feed & Grain event.

Prairie AquaTech CEO Mark Luecke was present at the award ceremony and said, "Aquafeed is a globally recognized source of industry news and information – their recognition of our work is very important. This award is the result of our team's passion for developing high quality products that support the aquaculture value chain, and our persistence to achieve production at scale."

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Prairie AquaTech was named the 2019 winner of the internationally curated Aquafeed Innovation Award for Ingredients at an international conference in Cologne, Germany.

Dennis Harstad, Plant Manager and VP of Operations, said, “Plant construction has been right on schedule and we began operation in June.”

That is good news for farmers as Harstad said 2.5 million bushels of non-GMO soybeans will needed by the new facility to produce the needed production. The facility is 43,000 square feet and cost $45 million to build. The additional demand for the non-GMO soybeans encouraged some farmers to these varieties to meet those needs.

Providing soybean-based fish food adds value to soybeans, much as ethanol provided an additional use for corn.

I visited the AgTech Center — Prairie AquaTech’s pilot-scale facility— in Brookings a few years ago and walked through the process with Harstad. Those in charge are dedicated to finding the best way to produce protein for the feeds that nourish fish, using soybeans raised on millions of acres of cropland across the state.

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Dennis Harstad shows some soybean meal after an aerobic fermenter removes the sugars and increases the soy protein. It is then mixed with other ingredients and pelletized.

Globally, there is 66 million tons of fish raised each year compared to 63 million tons of beef. Most times, when we hear the term livestock, we think of cattle, hogs, sheep, chickens and turkeys. At Prairie AquaTech, 250 recirculating tanks hold another type of livestock — fish. The tanks hold many different species of fish — Coho salmon, rainbow trout, tilapia and catfish. Some fish like the floating pellets while others are bottom feeders.

At feeding time, the pellets dropped into the tanks quickly disappear. Some fish prefer the ones which float and there is a swirl of silver bodies as the creatures swim to the surface where they grab the morsels. Years of testing by the company ensures proper nutrition and appeal to the aquatic palate.

In other tanks, the pellets drop the floor of the container where the fish maneuver for their meal.

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Coho Salmon at Prairie AquaTech in Brookings.

Why does this company concentrate on ingredients that go into fish feed? The World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimate that by 2030, two-thirds of all seafood consumed globally will come from aquaculture. Prairie AquaTech is working to supply to aqua feed manufacturers who focus on trout, salmon and shrimp.

The U.S. imports 91 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S., and ultimately consumers pay for import costs. Consumers are seeking more seafood every year and companies in the United States are looking at ways to grow the fish domestically. Creating this protein ingredient helps push that industry forward.

Just as the high price of crude oil is why corn-based ethanol was developed a fuel source, Prairie AquaTech plans to extend high-priced fishmeal by selling fish food made with South Dakota soybeans to grow the fish and soybean industry.

One of Prairie AquaTech’s customers is one of the largest trout producers for Whole Foods Market. The non-GMO soybeans preferred by this company are available in South Dakota. So as the demand for the fish food grew, the company made plans to build additional space in Volga.

“Every day, aquaculture grows in its importance to the world’s food supply,” John Mollison, VP of Communications, said. “Right now, aquaculture supplies over half the world’s consumption of seafood. This growth is excellent for aquaculture but the depletion of wild-caught sources for feed is driving innovation in using plant-based proteins. The power of ME-PRO to provide aquaculture with high-quality protein is enormous and growing every day."

Marketplace needs are driving crucial investment and innovation into agricultural-based technology. In our state, there is a steady demand for feed for livestock. The ability to tap a new market for those growing soybeans is welcome news.

Mollison said Prairie AquaTech was founded on ag-based innovation.

“New ideas are not only the foundation, they’re the walls and roof of operations," he explained. "We look forward to providing proven products and uses for many years. Right now, we’re focused on growing ME-PRO's power in aquaculture to include he tremendous shrimp market — a market that is currently worth $40 billion, worldwide.”

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