Lessons from the Tank: Iowa Producers Share an Insider’s Look at Aquaculture

12-22-2014 in Aquaculture

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 recent Iowa Aquaculture Conference in Ames. “It was intimidating at first, but we stuck with it. We’re still learning something new every day.”

While the cousins started raising hybrid striped bass, they later decided to specialize in 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.”

Young entrepreneur sees growth opportunities

Aquaculture has also hooked Joe Sweeney with the Buckeye Fish Company in north-central Iowa. He was intrigued with the possibilities while he was a student at Iowa State University a few years ago.

“I thought this would be a great opportunity for someone willing to get started in a new industry with high growth potential,” said Sweeney, who was inspired by the Nelson cousins’ operation.

Sweeney traveled to Alabama to study with Dr. Jesse Chappell, an Auburn University Extension aquaculture specialist. He also worked on fish farms in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi to learn the business.

After returning to Iowa, he developed a business plan for the Buckeye Fish Company. The size of the project doubled by the spring of 2014 as more investors signed on. By the fall of 2014, the Buckeye Fish Company was under construction, complete with 24 10,000-gallon tanks. The operation is slated to open in early 2015 and is projected to produce 240,000 pounds barramundi per year.

“We have something incredible happening here in Iowa that’s providing a way for the next generation to be part of production agriculture,” said Sweeney, a sixth-generation Iowa livestock producer. “We look forward to proving ourselves on a global scale.”

To watch the video from the Iowa Aquaculture Conference, visit www.supportfarmers.com/aquaculture.

About the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers

The Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers has helped more than 2,800 livestock and poultry farm families over the past 10 years successfully and responsibly grow their farms. CSIF helps families interpret rules and regulations, site new livestock and poultry barns, enhance relationships with neighbors, and implement best management practices for livestock and poultry farmers across the state of Iowa at no charge. For more information, call 800-932-2436 or visit www.supportfarmers.com.

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