Iowa’s newest opportunity in livestock farming doesn’t moo or oink, cluck or graze. Instead, it may soon be swimming at a farm near you.

This fall, Farm Bureau member Joe Sweeney of Alden, 23, and his business partners broke ground on their new aquaculture facility, named Buckeye Fish Co., in Hardin County.

The building will house 24 tanks with a capacity of 10,000 gallons. The farm will raise barramundi, an Australian fish prized by chefs for its taste, quality and ease of cooking.

Sweeney and his partners re­­cently celebrated their aquaculture venture at a dinner last month inside an historic barn on the Sweeney family farm near Alden.

Chef Stu Heinerfelt, with Green Belt Bed and Breakfast in Ames, prepared an appetizer and main course featuring barramundi from Iowa’s First, an aquaculture farm in Webster City that has become a model for other Iowans looking to get started in fish farming.

“We’re going through an interesting time of being on the verge of making fish production big in the state of Iowa,” Sweeney said.

Five local families have joined together as founding partners for Buckeye Fish Co., Sweeney said. The company recently hired a production manager, James Wamboldt, an aquaculture specialist who previously worked at Harrisvaccines in Ames, helping develop vaccines for the shrimp industry.

Wamboldt, who attended the barn dinner, admits that he never expected to find a job working on a commercial aquaculture farm in lake-less north-central Iowa.
“I thought I’d be moving to the coast. But the economy is too good in Iowa to go elsewhere,” said Wamboldt, an Iowa State University (ISU) grad and Wisconsin native.

Aquaculture interest

ISU Extension is getting calls almost daily from Iowans interested in raising fish in the state, said Allen Pattillo, an ISU Extension fisheries and aquaculture specialist.

These ag entrepreneurs are inspired by the early success of Iowa’s First, owned and operated by cousins Jeff and Mark Nelson of Webster City.

The Nelsons started out raising striped bass in a former hog barn they converted for aquaculture. Now they have switched to barramundi.

This fast-growing predator fish boasts an excellent rate of gain and feed conversion ratio, said Dan Burden, value-added agriculture specialist for ISU Extension.

“With a salmon, it’s like raising a cheetah; you have to feed them ‘prime rib.’ But with (barramundi), they are almost on the level of carp. The fish as a livestock animal is awesome,” Burden said.

Chef Heinerfelt agreed. “Why I love barramundi is because the flavor comes through. It holds up ... It tends to be juicier and denser,” he explained.

Potential growth
The aquaculture industry has the potential to grow in Iowa, said Mike Meissen with the Iowa Area Development Group.

Overall, fish consumption is on the rise in the United States as more people learn about the nutritional benefits of fish. However, seafood is also the second-largest import into the United States, behind crude oil, Burden said.

“So right away, if we can capture a lot of that value here, we are attacking a trade deficit. So that’s a great reason to do this,” he said.

Industry partners are looking into the possibility of opening a federally inspected fish-processing facility in Iowa to support the state’s growing aquaculture industry, Meissen and Burden said.

“If you look at the egg industry, if (Iowa was) only the largest producer of eggs, but we didn’t have processing, there wouldn’t be a market for it. That’s why we’re also the largest processor of eggs in the United States,” Meissen said.

Aquaculture challenges
Pattillo says he’s seeing interest in aquaculture from existing farmers looking for a way to bring a son or daughter back to the farm, as well as from people who have never farmed before but are looking for something new and interesting to do.

However, starting an aquaculture operation isn’t as easy as putting in a tank and feeding the fish occasionally, Pattillo said. Unfortunately, farmers often lose an entire crop of fish when starting out.

“We try to give them the really hard truths up front and tell them how much cost there is, how much time is involved and how much loss there is...,” Pattillo said. “And some people, it scares them away, and some people are like, all right, I think I can do this.”

Like any livestock operation, fish farmers must be on call at all times, Pattillo said. If they are out of town, they need a back-up to check in on the fish. And if something breaks down, farmers should set up an alert on their smartphone to let them know right away, Pattillo said.

“It’s a lot like a hog barn. That’s why it makes a lot of sense in Iowa, because people are already used to this. They know what hard work is; they know what kind of hours they need to put into it,” he said.

Sweeney noted that the start-up plans for Buckeye Fish Co. have changed over the last few months. As more partners have joined the operation, they decided to double the production capacity.

“People are really interested in being part of a growing industry. There is a lot of opportunity, and the time is now to get out there and get started,” Sweeney said.

The Coalition to Support Iowa's Farmers is hosting a workshop on opportunities in aquaculture, November 13. See details.