Golden Diversification Opportunity
Perspectives On Line: The Magazine of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

NC State University

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Golden Diversification Opportunity--With aquaculture's farm-gate value of more than $20 million and worldwide markets awaiting, fish farming offers producers promising alternatives. By Alexandra Mordecai
Dr. Harry Daniels (left), at the Tidewater Research Station. Photo by Herman Lankford

Ornate letter "W"
hen it comes
to agricultural diversification, aquaculture is perhaps one of the best examples of the successful return on the investment in research and extension efforts.

Since College scientists began refining production practices and conducting research that enabled producers to grow new products, such as hybrid striped bass, aquaculture’s farm-gate value has grown to more than $20 million. When economic multipliers are considered, the industry has an impact of approximately $100 million each year to the state.

In 1999, the aquaculture industry expanded to include fish known as tilapia. North Carolina farmers now have the capacity to bring nearly 1 million pounds of tilapia to the market annually.

Among current research activities are efforts to find whether intensive water recirculating barn systems can be used for year-round production of Southern flounder. Golden LEAF and USDA funds are supporting this work to develop a new greenhouse-based flounder production technology.

Built at the College’s Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory, a tobacco-style greenhouse is where Dr. Harry Daniels, of the College’s Department of Zoology, and Dr. Tom Losordo, of the Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department, are working to demonstrate to potential growers the best ways to grow the fish from fingerling size to market weight. The work is an extension of Daniels’ efforts at a Tidewater Research Station hatchery near Plymouth, where he has gotten the flounder to thrive and reproduce in captivity.

Because of its historical seafood industry and an aquaculture industry that’s grown by 15 percent annually for the past 10 years, North Carolina has large, well-established marketing channels that could get farm-raised flounder to worldwide markets. Daniels is optimistic that Southern flounder aquaculture will become a reality for eastern North Carolina producers. “I’ve gotten lots of interest from all over the world,” he says. “So I’m convinced the market is there.”

A decade ago, the extent of aquaculture in the state was an established trout industry in the mountains and a few hundred acres of catfish ponds across the rest of the state. Now, says Losordo, there are nearly 2,500 acres of ponds devoted to catfish, 700 acres of ponds in which hybrid striped bass are grown and 10 fish barns. The College’s program is primarily responsible for much of the growth of the industry, particularly of hybrid striped bass.

“ Aquaculture has proved perfect for diversification,” Losordo says. Most farmers already have some of what they need to get into aquaculture on a relatively small scale, things such as a well, land for ponds, a computer, tractors and other equipment. Farmers can put in 24 to 48 acres of ponds for a relatively modest investment.

“ I don’t think there’s a land-grant program as strong as N.C. State’s in assisting people with diversifying into aquaculture,” says Losordo. “The potential for aquaculture in this state is there. It’s a matter of financing and research, finance and market development.”

Two producers who are diversifying into aquaculture with help from Losordo and Daniels are R.C. Hunt, producing tilapia, and Nash Johnson, producing yellow perch.

R.C. Hunt--pork producer and fish-farming pioneer


Ornate letter "H"ow do you go from being North Carolina’s outstanding pork producer to one of the country’s biggest tilapia fish farmers? R.C. Hunt of Wilson County did it with a lot of hard work and some help from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Fish Barn Program for aquaculture research and extension.

Hunt, a 1977 graduate of N.C. State in animal science, was named 2003 Outstanding Pork Producer by the N.C. Pork Council. He also is a pioneer and leader in fish farming in the state. Hunt, along with partners Spencer Dean (NCSU, agronomy, ’87), and Bob and Bill Andrews, started Southern Farm Tilapia, a multi-location fish farming operation, in 1997 as a means of diversifying their farms.

Hunt has worked with a team of consultants, including the College’s Dr. Tom Losordo, Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering aquaculture Extension specialist; Dennis DeLong, aquaculture Extension specialist; and many others to create the multi-step tilapia production operation. “Tom and Dennis are great contributors to our project,” Hunt said. “Their background from industry to academia set the stage for our master plan.”

Southern Farm Tilapia is at the forefront of a burgeoning fish farming industry in North Carolina. Annual production of tilapia for 2003 was more than 1 million pounds. The company’s hatchery is located in Castalia, and production facilities are in Louisburg and Bailey.
Hunt said that he and his partners did a great deal of research before going into aquaculture.

“ We had built a successful operation in livestock. I will always be a big supporter and promoter of the pork and cattle industries, and they have a great future. I want to be a part of that as long as I can. But we had reached a point of maximum investment in pigs and cattle,” Hunt said. “So we were looking at diversifying our farm operation. We brought in consultants to ascertain what we had and what we didn’t have as far as resources.”

Hunt and his partners considered expanding into produce, as well as four aquaculture species: fresh-water shrimp, salt-water shrimp, trout and tilapia.

“ The technology for raising fresh-water shrimp wasn’t developed adequately eight years ago, so that was out. And we couldn’t pick up 1,000 acres and move them to the coast to raise salt-water shrimp,” Hunt said. “In the same way, we couldn’t move our operations to the mountains, where there is cool, mountain stream water that trout need. When we had compared our talents and resources with what tilapia require, we saw some real common denominators.”

Tilapia, while not extremely popular in the Southern United States yet, is a major protein source in some parts of the world, particularly in Asia. Tilapia is one of the few fish species that can eat both plant and animal protein, and Hunt’s farms had plenty of soybean meal to feed the fish. Because the fish are raised in tanks, the water supply must be constantly cleaned and recycled.

“ We toured a lot of facilities while we were researching, and we really got behind the recycle technology that Tom Losordo was a major developer of,” Hunt said. “We found out that most of these recycle processes worked on a laboratory scale, but we wanted to develop them to a commercial scale — that’s where our challenge really began.”

Losordo and DeLong helped Hunt and his partners find brood stock and design a hatchery and nursery in early 1997. “We made an introduction to a company in Canada that had an advanced breeding program and a reputation for fast-growing tilapia,” Losordo said. Our program ran a growth test on these fish and, finding that they grew very well, Mr. Hunt developed a business relationship with the Canadian firm.”

In 1999 DeLong and Losordo helped design Southern Farm Tilapia’s first large-scale tilapia production facility. SFT now comprises a hatchery, two grow-out facilities and a fish processing and storage facility.

Southern Farm Tilapia sells its product — fish about 1½ pounds each — to several types of buyers: fish markets all over the United States, which buy the fish on ice for restaurants or grocery stores; fish markets across the country that buy the fish live to sell primarily to Asian consumers; and fish processing plants. Development of a tilapia nugget is in the works.

Hunt thinks that as fish farming infrastructure — such as feed formulation, processing, marketing and water reuse — continues to develop, more North Carolinians will find it enticing to get into the business.

Southern Farm Tilapia — a pioneer in the fish farming business in our state — is proving that farm diversification can work, provided adequate research, resources and commitment are applied.

As Hunt said, “We are very proud of our company.”

Nash Johnson--yellow perch is a good prospect. Photo by Becky Kirkland


Ornate letter "Y"ellow perch — they’re pretty to look at, fun to catch and tasty to eat. They’re also helping a North Carolina hog and crop farmer to diversify his business.

Nash Johnson of Clinton began building his fish barn in April 2002 after a considerable amount of research and consultation.

“ I felt like aquaculture was an area that showed promise,” said Johnson, a 1980 NCSU graduate in poultry science. “I grew up in turkey farming, so I knew it pretty thoroughly. But with raising fish, we’re learning as we go. It is taking a lot of effort, and I’ve made a few mistakes, but I think it is something that our farmers can do. We’re learning a lot, and we will continue to learn and expand.”

Johnson sought help from College aquaculture specialists several years ago when he was considering starting a fish farming operation. Dr. Tom Losordo, Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering aquaculture Extension specialist, suggested yellow perch, a species that aquaculture Extension agent Steve Gabel (Chowan County) had promoted as a good prospect for North Carolinians who wanted to raise food fish. Zoology Extension specialist Dr. Harry Daniels agreed with Gabel and had been working on developing hatchery and culture methods for yellow perch.

Daniels helped Johnson determine that yellow perch would be a good match for his resources and interests. “Nash took a while to get the necessary information together and decide on going ahead with the plan,” Daniels said. “Meanwhile, our research advanced, and we felt comfortable projecting growth and estimating economic returns.”

Johnson was encouraged by the outlook for yellow perch sales. “The market showed potential at the time. There was good demand and a good market price,” he said.

With his decision made, Johnson forged ahead. Losordo designed Johnson’s 10,000 square foot fish barn, and Losordo and extension aquaculture specialist Dennis DeLong helped Johnson design the tank system. It has four cold water tanks, seven nursery tanks and 12 grow-out tanks. Recycled water is a key to the operation.

Yellow perch are native to North Carolina, so Johnson is able to buy his fingerlings from a North Carolina breeder. He got his first inch-long fingerlings in September 2002. When the fish reach seven to 10 inches long and weigh about a third of a pound, they are sold. Yellow perch is especially popular in the Great Lakes area, where restaurants, fish markets and fish processors are big customers.

“ Our design is to raise and sell fish every month. I’m working with Harry Daniels now on a study to determine how long the fish should be kept cold to improve grow-out times. We put the fish in a cold-water tank, so that they don’t grow, and then when we’re ready, we’ll take a group out and put them into warmer water so they’ll grow,” Johnson said. “Probably the biggest challenge we’ve faced was treating a fish disease, but we dealt with that.”

When Johnson decided to become a fish farmer, and he came to N.C. State for assistance, he got the university’s specialty — research-based data and helpful advice. “We provided and still are assisting with the fundamental information about stocking rates, feeding rates, and general management of the culture operations,” Daniels said. “We have given Nash the latest information based on the most recent studies we have conducted at N.C. State.”

Daniels expects aquaculture to be an important part of diversifying North Carolina’s agriculture. Like any agriculture activity, it requires lots of hard work and some capital to get started, he said.

Johnson agreed. “I wouldn’t discourage anybody who was interested from trying it,” he said. “If you’re willing to put in the research, the time and lots of work, and you can afford to make a few mistakes, then I would be encouraging.”


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