WEBSTER CITY - For three years, cousins Mark and Jeff Nelson, of rural Webster City, looked for a way to turn three empty confinement buildings into revenue-generating facilities.
"We looked at everything," Mark Nelson said, "even cattle." But what they settled on was fish - hybrid striped bass, to be specific.
After gutting one of the buildings, the cousins have thrown the switch on their 12-tank aquaculture operation they christened Iowa First.
-Messenger photo by Larry Kershner
Nelson explains how one of his two blower units work. If one goes out, the other will kick in within seconds.
-Messenger photo by Larry Kershner
Nelson stands beside one of the filter units. His hand is resting on thousands of plastic bits that contain fish-friendly bacteria. The culture grows in this tank and is fed to the fish side. The bacteria consumes nitrite in the water, converting it to nitrate, which is not harmful to the fish.
It's the first commercial-scale aquaculture business in Iowa, Mark said.
It'll take two weeks to grow the needed bacteria cultures before the fish are introduced to the 12 tanks waiting for them, said Rick Sheriff, of Parchman, Miss. "Most people think we raise fish here," Sheriff said. "But we're growing bacteria, and the bacteria take care of the fish."
The microscopic "bugs" consume the nitrites the fish put into the water, converting them to nitrates which are not bothersome to the fish.
Sheriff is the inventor and patent holder of the tank, filter and cleaning system the Nelsons have purchased. He was on hand to assist the Nelsons' work crew in assembling the system.
Sheriff said the dozen 10,000-gallon fish tanks installed is an "entry-level" size. The Nelsons were starting small to get acquainted with the process and determine if the operation would pay. However, they have plenty of space for expansion.
"But I'd be surprised that a year from now, they haven't expanded," Sheriff said.
"The market for this is so big," he said, "you can have dozens and dozens of (Iowa) operations on family farms," without saturating the market.
Nevertheless, Sheriff said, this is a niche market, but there are so many varieties of fish that can be cultured, both for food, recreation or even bait for game fish.
Nelson said the aquaculture market is "highly competitive," hesitating before agreeing being interviewed.
He declined to name his market, because of the cut-throat nature of the industry.
The bass are being grown for food, Nelson said, "but we'll always have fish for sale." He said rural families with ponds to stock, would likely get some of his bass.
But be ready to pay for them. This species is in great demand in the food industry.
Nelson said the bass will arrive from a source in Arkansas at 5 inches long. They'll be grown to about 20-ounce size, netted from the tank and shipped eitherlive or on ice to a distributor.
Nelson will stagger his incoming fish, so that he can have a ready supply of market-weight bass on a regular basis.
Nelson said he initially had problems with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in getting a permit for field-applying the fish manure.
The problem was that, until recently, fish were not classified as an Iowa livestock industry. So the DNR's only classification for the fish manure was industrial waste.
But after clearing that hurdle, he has the permits to pump waste into a slurry pond and apply over his fields.
When asked how many acres he'll need to distribute the fish manure, Nelson chuckled. A year's worth of hog manure required 200 acres to land-apply, he said, while a year's worth of fish manure will need roughly five acres.
"There's just not that much to it," Nelson said.
On the facility's exterior are the usual biosecurity warnings from when this was a hog building.
Nelson said there are some concerns and policies to be followed as a fish culture, "but there's no shower in/shower out, like hogs. Only if someone touches the water with their hands - and no one will touch the water."
Contact Larry Kershner at (515) 573-2141, ext. 453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.