A hog production facility idled for economic reasons is back in production. However, there are sounds of splashes and not squeals coming from the farm operation near Webster City. The business, called Iowa's First, has taken a proactive approach to circumventing the losses in livestock production due to economic changes by moving into fish farming.
Farmers Mark and Jeff Nelson are producing hybrid striped bass in their unused hog facilities. The former hog barns now hold 18 large tanks, each tank is 10,000-gallons, for raising fish. The feed delivery, insulated buildings, floor drains, effluent pond and other infrastructure used in hog production translate well into aquaculture, according to Allen Pattillo, aquaculture specialist with Iowa State University Extension.
Cousins and long-time business partners, the Nelsons began raising hybrid striped bass in an aquaculture system on their Hamilton County farm about a year ago. Their farm-raised fish enterprise began after several years of research and considering several ideas of how to use a group of former sow farrowing barns. After deciding fish farming might work, the Nelsons spent two years looking at other aquaculture farms across the county to get ideas for their system. "It's been an interesting venture," says Jeff Nelson. "There are so many different ideas as to how to raise fish on a commercial scale on a farm. There's nothing standard in terms of method and systems."
ISU's Pattillo says, "I'm receiving more calls all the time from people wanting to know how to get involved in aquaculture. Iowa's First is generating farmer interest and economic development interest in Iowa. Farmers around Iowa with empty pork production facilities are looking for ways to turn them into profitable business ventures."~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~
The Nelson cousins grow fish in a recirculating aquaculture system to a market size of 2 pounds over a seven-month growing period. The fish are then sent to a processor and sold to white tablecloth restaurants throughout the Midwest.
With assistance of ISU Extension they hope to create an aquaculture hub in central Iowa
The recirculating style of aquaculture allows the Nelsons to grow fish in less than one-third of the time required in ponds, and allows for ease of accessibility, monitoring and harvest. The facility is the largest of its kind in Iowa, but is not large enough to meet the volume needs of a fish processor. They plan to start a cooperative to meet industry demands and create an aquaculture hub in central Iowa. They've turned to Iowa State University Extension and Outreach for assistance.
"The ISU value-added agriculture program has resources to assist in establishing a cooperative, and to assist in marketing Iowa grown products," says Ray Hansen, value- added ag specialist with ISU Extension. "We will perform a market analysis on the needs of the aquaculture industry in Iowa and surrounding states, and use the information to help the cooperative set and meet its production goals."
On March 2, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, representatives from ISU Extension and Outreach value-added agriculture, rural development and rural electricity cooperatives were among those to tour the Iowa's First operation and get a first-hand look at commercial-scale fish farming in Iowa.
Increased opportunity for fish farming as consumers want locally-grown food
The Nelsons see more opportunity for growth of fish farming in the Midwest as consumers seek more locally grown food. Eighty percent of fish consumed in the U.S. is imported, according to government statistics. Farm-raised fish provide Midwest consumers the same opportunity to buy fish as fresh as people who live on the coasts can buy, notes Mark Nelson. Restaurant chefs and other buyers cite the freshness of Iowa's First fish, which are shipped out either live or on ice.
Raising fish is similar to hogs in a lot of ways, say the Nelsons, who still custom feed hogs in addition to growing corn and soybeans. "Fish farming is fairly new in Iowa, but I see a lot of potential in the state," says Jeff Nelson. "There are a lot of hog buildings like ours that are no longer being used, and they could be converted to fish production."