AMES, Iowa – A hog production facility idled by the economy is back in production. However, there are sounds of splashes and not squeals coming from the farm operation near Webster City. The business, Iowa’s First, has taken a proactive approach to circumventing the losses in livestock production due to economic changes by moving into fish farming.
Mark and Jeff Nelson are producing hybrid striped bass in their unused hog facility. The one-acre facility holds 18 10,000-gallon tanks. 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 and Outreach.
“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 and economic development interest in Iowa,” Pattillo said. “Farmers around Iowa with empty pork production facilities are looking for ways to turn them into profitable business ventures.”
The Nelson cousins grow fish in a recirculating aquaculture system to a market size of two pounds over a seven-month growing period. The fish are then sent to a processor and sold to white tablecloth restaurants throughout the Midwest.
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 it 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 Iowa State value added agriculture program has resources to assist in establishing a cooperative and marketing Iowa grown products,” said Ray Hansen, value added agriculture specialist with ISU Extension and Outreach. “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 commercial-scale fish farming in Iowa.