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The taste of success is fresh at Victus Farm

Mike Mageau, director of Victus Farm in Silver Bay (left), shows Sen. Amy Klobuchar an assortment of plants and herbs grown in a room adjacent to the farm’s greenhouse. Klobuchar visited Victus Farm for nearly an hour last Thursday to learn how researchers are producing food in ways that are environmentally and economically sustainable. Photo by Kyle Farris.1 / 2
Rows of potted basil soak up the light inside Victus Farm in Silver Bay last Thursday morning. The farm produces about 50 pounds of basil each week, which it then sells to local restaurants and grocers. Photo by Kyle Farris.2 / 2

Kyle Farris

Thousands of gallons of water from the “hundred-year” flood of 2012 still linger inside a greenhouse and fishery that sits along Lake Superior’s north shore.

Fortunately for Victus Farm, the 8,600-square-foot facility isn’t sitting in the water. It’s using the water to raise tilapia and grow produce for sale at local restaurants and supermarkets.

“We knew it was going to rain,” said Mike Mageau, director of Victus Farm. As the farm was preparing to open two summers ago, the skies opened up, dumping more than half a foot of water on the Northland in the space of 24 hours.

“We raced to get our rainwater so we could get set up,” he said. “We needed, like, 40,000 gallons, and we thought, ‘Well, we’ll catch some.’ And then we got that massive flood.”

A collaborative effort between the city of Silver Bay and the University of Minnesota Duluth, Victus Farm is a laboratory of sorts for research into sustainable food production.

The farm is able to reuse the same supply of water over and over again because of a naturally occurring nutrient exchange. The tilapia deposit waste into the water, which acts as a fertilizer for the plants. In turn, the plants reoxidize the water for the fish, renewing the cycle.

“Our water is recycled,” Mageau said. “We have a $200-a-month electric bill — very minimal inputs and outputs.”

By day, Mageau is an assistant professor of environmental studies at UMD. He has enlisted the help of about a dozen students to help run the farm, which operates year-round.

“People were kind of invested in this idea because they thought it could be a new way to produce food,” Mageau said. “And it’s working. I think this is going to become a business, and you’re going to see these pop up in Minnesota and all over the place in the next five years.”

Projects like Victus Farm are becoming critical as a greater emphasis is placed on taking care of the environment, said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who visited the farm for nearly an hour last Thursday to tour the facility and see the process in action.

“As we look at more and more people in this world and less land, we have to be smarter and smarter about how we use that land and how we use our water,” Klobuchar said. “They literally are self-sustaining, and we need to see more of that across the country.”

Klobuchar plucked a tomato from a vine to taste the merchandise, and she was in a small group that was splashed by water during feeding time at one of the tilapia tanks.

“We can look at doing things like this on bigger scales,” she said. “This is incredible. It’s a story of Minnesota — of sustainability and new ideas.”

Victus Farm spends about $9,000 a month, Mageau said, and brings in about $5,000 from sales. Research grants make up the difference.

Produce from the farm’s garden, which is replenished every eight weeks, goes to Duluth Grill, Lake Avenue Cafe,

Northern Waters Smokehaus and Va Bene Cafe — all in Duluth — as well as the Cook County Whole Foods Co-op in Grand Marais. The tilapia is purchased by At Sara’s Table in Duluth.

Still, Mageau says Victus Farm has a few kinks that need straightening out.

The greenhouse occasionally suffers from attacks by aphids, a small insect known for wreaking havoc on gardens (Mageau says the introduction of ladybugs can fix the problem). He also says the farm’s lettuce lacks a consistent taste, an issue he thanked customers for understanding.

“I think we’re almost there,” Mageau said. “I think we’ve got most of the bugs worked out.”

Plans to bring the concept behind Victus Farm to the rest of the state are already in the works, Mageau said, but he wants to wait until a more sustainable and cost-effective model is designed.

Right now, Victus Farm grows primarily lettuces and tomatoes in its greenhouse, but researchers are experimenting with different types of plants, including peppers, cucumbers and grapes.

“We plan to try a lot of things,” Mageau said. “It’s just finding species that have good market value and perform really well in this kind of system.”

According to Mageau, the next step would be to broaden the reach of sustainable farming in Minnesota, either by expanding the existing facility or building many small facilities across the state.

Mageau said he envisions a farm in every town, while the city of Silver Bay favors putting up a larger facility next to the existing one, in which case food for the entire state would be grown and distributed by Victus Farm.

“We’re kind of moving forward on both fronts,” Mageau said. “We’ll see which one gets the legs to survive.”