AMES – When Mark Nelson looked at his old, empty sow unit a few years ago, he began brainstorming creative ways to put it back into production and add a new profit center to his Hamilton County farm.
He and his cousin, Jeff Nelson, decided to explore aquaculture after talking to a feed system vendor who was exhibiting at the Iowa Pork Congress.
“For two years we traveled from the East Coast to the South to learn anything we could about aquaculture,” said Nelson, who runs Iowa’s First near Blairsburg and Webster City and shared his story at the Nov. 13 Iowa Aquaculture Conference in Ames. “It was intimidating at first, but we stuck with it.”
While the cousins started raising hybrid striped bass, they have transitioned to barramundi. Dubbed “Australia’s favorite fish,” barramundi is known throughout many parts of the world as Asian sea bass. The Nelsons have been steadily building a market for their fish in the Midwest, including Iowa and Illinois.
“There are a lot of different ways you can go with aquaculture, from fish to shellfish to shrimp,” said Mark Nelson, whose aquaculture business has received the Renew Rural Iowa Entrepreneur Award from the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation. “While no one wanted to talk to us until we had the fish available, demand is like a snowball. It just keeps getting bigger as it rolls on.”
Assessing opportunities and challenges
Global demand for seafood is growing, even at a time when U.S. seafood consumption is declining, noted Chris Weeks, a regional aquaculture specialist with the North Central Regional Aquaculture Center and Michigan State University.
While the world aquaculture market totaled $135 billion and 66.5 million tons in 2002, this is projected to increase by millions of pounds to $330 billion by 2030. “Demand for seafood is going up, due to the growing global population and the increased need for protein,” Weeks said. “The key question is whether farmed seafood is mankind’s best option for a safe, healthy protein supply.”
A number of factors seem to indicate yes. Farmed seafood is sustainable and addresses the challenge of overfishing natural seafood supplies. It’s also efficient. While it takes 6.8 pounds of feed to produce one pound of beef, 2.9 pounds of feed to produce one pound of pork and 1.7 pounds of feed to produce one pound of poultry, it only takes 1.1 pounds of feed to produce one pound of fish, Weeks said.
Although global aquaculture production overtook global beef production starting in 2010, seafood consumption has been dropping closer to home. “Americans ate 2 pounds more seafood [per capita] in 2004 than now,” said Weeks, who attributes this to taste preferences, affordability issues and negative, conflicting messages about seafood in the media. “Consumers are told to eat more fish as part of a healthy diet, for example, but they hear frightening messages about fish contaminated with mercury.”
What local buyers are saying
How can aquaculture specialists combat these challenges? Focus on educating retailers and chefs, Weeks said. Not only has the U.S. Department of Agriculture continued to highlight the health benefits of seafood, but the National Restaurant Association recently named locally-sourced meat and seafood as a top culinary trend.
Chef Stew Hinerfeld of the Green Belt Bed and Breakfast in Ames praises locally-grown barramundifor its taste. “Barramundi has a high protein level like salmon and a similar mouth feel to salmon, with the finish of ocean bass or mahi mahi,” said Hinerfeld, who served a barramundi entre with lobster sauce to the more than 150 guests at the Iowa Aquaculture Conference, which was hosted by the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers (CSIF).
Hinerfeld favors fresh, Iowa-grown, biosecure seafood like barramundi. “I get an incredible response when people find out this fish is grown here. If you choose to be part of aquaculture in the future, I’m your market.”
Getting chefs excited about locally-grown seafood is a key to expanding Iowa’s aquaculture industry, said John Rohrs, seafood manager for PDI, a food distributor and wholly owned subsidiary of Hy-Vee, Inc. “Fish that was at the farm less than 24 hours ago sells itself.”
PDI also encourages vendors and suppliers to acquire certain certifications from organizations like FishWise to ensure consumers receive the freshest, safest seafood possible. “This is a great opportunity, and I believe farmed-raised aquaculture is the future,” Rohrs said.
Learning a new industry
There can be a steep learning curve with aquaculture production, however. “I’ve been doing this three years, and I continue to learn something new every day,” Mark Nelson said.
Producers must learn about fish husbandry to maximize growth rates, biosecurity, fish health, feeding, water supplies, water quality, effluent management and more. One of the keys to success is to test the water supply before setting up an aquaculture system, said Allen Pattillo, an Iowa State University Extension aquaculture specialist who noted that well water can be a good option.
Once the system is up and running, it’s important to monitor the fish daily and check equipment for leaks, in addition to testing the water daily for dissolved oxygen levels, temperature, pH and ammonia levels. “These factors can change quickly and impact the health and growth of your fish,” said Pattillo, who also recommends weekly testing for nitrate and nitrite levels, alkalinity and carbon dioxide.
Solids must be removed quickly for optimal water quality. Effluent management for aquaculture is regulated by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources much like other livestock feeding operations. Producers are encouraged to work with CSIF before they start an aquaculture operation to learn more about how to meet these regulations.
“We’re seeing an increase in calls from young people interested in aquaculture,” said Brian Waddingham, CSIF’s executive director. “As Iowa’s livestock industry evolves to include aquaculture, CSIF is here to help.”
To watch videos from the Iowa Aquaculture Conference, log onto CSIF’s website at www.supportfarmers.com.
Financial Risks of Entering a New Industry
For anyone entering a new industry like Iowa aquaculture, the opportunities are great, but it’s vital to ask some key questions first, said Allen Patten, a vice president with Farm Credit Services of America.
Where is my existing operation today, in terms of production, labor, and finances?
Is my existing operation profitable?
Am I in a position to take on additional risk?
Can I accept the risks that go along with a start-up industry?
Do I have adequate cash/liquidity/working capital to invest in this new venture?
What’s my contingency plan if this venture doesn’t work?
Can I absorb the losses and/or additional debt in my existing operation?
“Anytime you enter anew industry, due you homework,” said Patten, who spoke at the Iowa Aquaculture Conference. “If you can answer these key questions, you’ll probably be good to invest.”
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