Aquaculture and aquaponics operations in Illinois and Indiana produce a wide variety of high-value seafood and vegetable products. Despite this, the vast majority of local chefs and restaurants are unaware that these products are being produced locally, so they still rely on frozen or fresh processed seafood, according to Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant Aquaculture Specialist Andrew Coursey.
Coursey wants that to change. Aquaculture operations in Indiana produce large quantities of food fish, and these products are then shipped to large metropolitan areas with live fish markets. “The farm-raised seafood market is established and successful,” said Coursey, “but it’s not connecting these aquaculture products to local markets where there could be high demand.”
This summer, Coursey conducted a tour of aquaculture facilities with 16 representatives from Purdue University Hospitality and Tourism Management, Purdue Dining and Catering, and local restaurants from the Lafayette, Indiana, area. The tour was used to educate chefs and dining executives on how fish and vegetables are produced using aquaculture and aquaponics practices, and to showcase high quality products that are produced locally.
Bob Rode, aquaculture research lab manager for the Purdue University Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, takes a close look at the biofilters at Meador Farms in Cutler, Indiana. Recirculating aquaculture systems require the breakdown of waste products produced by fish (toxic ammonia) into non-toxic ammonia nitrate by culturing nitrifying bacteria in a biofilter, which provides an ideal environment for bacterial growth. (Photo: Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant/Andrew Coursey)
The group visited three local aquaculture facilities to see tilapia, barramundi, largemouth bass, Pacific white shrimp, red claw crayfish and aquaponics products operations. They then gathered at the Purdue Animal Sciences Research and Education Center for presentations by producers, aquaculture discussions, and a question and answer session. Representatives from producers throughout the state were in attendance, including White Creek Farms of Indiana, Falling Waters Farm, Sweetwater Springs Fish Farm, RDM Shrimp, Tippco Fish and Meador Farms.
Producer presentations covered a range of topics, including aquaponics, rainbow trout, tilapia, barramundi, largemouth bass, and hybrid striped bass. “Great discussions about recirculating aquaculture, aquaponics and fish processing occurred during this meeting and were beneficial to all groups in attendance,” said Coursey.
Aquaculture is the fastest growing food production industry in the world and a major industry in the United States, and aquaponics is also gaining traction. Aquaponics combines farming fish with growing plants hydroponically. Water is used in a closed system for producing both.
The tour was meant to connect food buyers and chefs with producers, educate chefs and producers about aquaculture and aquaponics, and generate interest in purchasing from local processing facilities. Presentations and aquaculture site visits provided information to both chefs and food buyers, while subsequent discussions allowed chefs to provide feedback to producers that will help them better market aquaculture products locally.
Imagine a way of farming fish with plants that has little to no impact on the environment—no runoff, soil loss, no need to even develop land. That’s aquaponics. And while it seems ideal, there’s a reason why current operations are small, few, and far between.
As its name suggests, aquaponics is a a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. Like with hydroponics, plants are grown with their roots directly in water. But where hydroponics introduces necessary nutrients artificially, aquaponics takes advantage of a symbiotic relationship between aquatic animals, bacteria, and plants. Normally aquaculture tanks need to be filtered to prevent waste byproducts from reaching harmful levels, but with aquaponics, bacteria convert these byproducts into the necessary nutrients for healthy plant growth. The plants are fed, and the water is filtered.
But there’s one important problem. For an aquaponics operation to be successful, it has to turn a profit. Most operations occupy a niche market in urban centers where fresh fish and veggies are either expensive or hard to come by—the Virgin Islands, Tucson, Chicago, and St. Paul to name a few. Tilapia and basil are a typical combination—tilapia because they’re hardy and easy to grow, and basil because of its high value. But as hardy as tilapia is, it’s still a tropical fish, meaning operations in colder climates have to cope with high energy costs to keep water temperatures warm. And while basil may be a high-value plant, the profit margin is still slim. Some operations have sought to circumvent these high energy costs by resorting to yellow perch and lettuce, but to little avail.
Operations in warmer climates like the ones in Tuscon and the Virgin Islands tend to see more success than those farther from the equator. Higher average temperatures help maintain stability in systems that are inherently unstable, giving operators more leeway as they try to balance the water chemistry. And its this stability that’s key for an operation to be economically viable.
The issue of stability is tricky enough to work out on a small scale. But to be profitable, producers must attempt larger operations, complicating something that was fragile and complex to begin with. That’s the catch-22 of aquaponics. Producers are faced with two options: either have a working system and watch the operation go bankrupt, or go bankrupt figuring out how to make the system work. And until this dilemma is resolved, aquaponics will continue to struggle to break into the mainstream.
For more information on aquaponics, contact Kwamena Quagrainie. Interested producers can also learn about practices that can improve the chance of success in this video created in partnership with Purdue Extension.
IISG staff will have the opportunity to see aquaculture in action next week while touring the Bell Aquaculture facility in Albany, IN. IISG’s Kwamena Quagrainie has been studying and providing expert advice to aquaculture operations in the Midwest and worldwide for many years, and will be giving the staff more information on how the facility provides millions of pounds of sustainably grown fish to the market each year. Aquaculture has been a growing food field in the state of Indiana, and a recent feasibility study funded in part by IISG (available online soon at our research projects page) shows that it may have significant potential in Illinois as well. Additionally, Purdue University produced this great video about aquaponics, which is an extension of aquaculture where fish and plants are raised sustainably and simultaneously in a mutually beneficial system.
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, along with several other Sea Grant programs, universities, and researchers, have been involved in advising and establishing a number of aquaculture operations in the U.S. and around the world, including some aquaponics facilities. This video from our friends at Purdue University provides a terrific amount of detail about aquaponics and how the process could help sustainably grow food. With the ability to grow plants and fish in a mutually beneficial system, aquaponics presents an especially viable and sustainable option to provide healthy and locally grown food for urban areas. From The Atlantic Cities:
“Aquaponics is a method of combined fish and vegetable farming that requires no soil. The farmer cultivates freshwater fish (aquaculture) and plants (hydroponics) in a recirculating water system that exchanges nutrients between the two. Wastewater from the fish serves as organic fertilizer for the plants, while the plants clean the water of fish feces and urine. The net result: a 90 percent reduction in freshwater use compared with conventional fish farming, and a significant reduction in added nutrients such as fossil fertilizers. The system can be run without pesticides and, because the fish environment is spacious and clean, without antibiotics…
In the lab, the pumps made gushy sounds at regular intervals. The water dripped. As the plants’ leaves evaporated moisture, I could hear the place breathe. I picked a ripe, red tomato from a vine. This lab, I sensed, could morph into an urban oasis: a lush, breathing organism inside the city. Unlike static green spaces like parks, this would be an actual farm as well as a place of tranquility in the city — not to mention a space that could generate the food to feed that city, with minimal harm to the environment or human health, just steps from residents’ tables.”
IISG’s Aquaculture Marketing Specialist Kwamena Quagrainie, who also directs the aquaculture economics and marketing program at Purdue University, was recently promoted to the position of Clinical Engagement Assistant Professor in Agricultural Economics. Dr. Quagrainie has been involved for many years in aquaculture marketing and outreach, helping numerous aquaculture operations get started or expand their business throughout the Midwest. He has also been involved in international efforts to promote and foster aquaculture operations throughout several African nations.
The Clinical Engagement professorship emphasizes transfer of applied research results to aquaculture communities small and large. The goal of this position is to promote active engagement in a field, which is the type of work that Dr. Quagrainie has been directly involved in for many years now. This promotion will give him even more opportunities to bring his expertise to aquaculture producers–helping businesses and communities grow.
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant aquaculture marketing specialist Kwamena Quagrainie was recently recognized for his many years of work in developing and improving the business practices, marketing, and success of aquaculture operations both in the state of Indiana and internationally through his efforts in several African nations.
The Purdue University Cooperative Extension Specialist Association’s (PUCESA) mid-career Award “recognizes an Extension specialist with 11-20 years of service. Recipients would have demonstrated extension leadership; excellence in delivering public education programs; innovative approaches to program development; outreach efforts to county Extension educators; research that benefits Extension clientele through practical application; or demonstrated collaboration with county educators, agencies, or community leaders.”
The text of the nomination provides more detail on Dr. Quagrainie’s work:
“Since joining Purdue in 2005, Dr. Kwamena Quagrainie has revitalized the aquaculture industry in Indiana and overseas. Through applied research and Extension he has expanded aquaculture funding and improved business for thousands of fish farms.
Kwamena’s leadership led to reorganization of the state aquaculture Extension team and development of a business management program for farms producing yellow perch, hybrid striped bass and freshwater prawns. Kwamena’s leadership was a driving force in the Indiana Soybean Alliance funding a 5-year Indiana Aquaculture Strategic Plan in 2007 resulting in up to $1 million annually in soybean check-off funds for aquaculture research and education in Indiana. Kwamena obtained additional research funding from USDA and Purdue to support Indiana aquaculture development. He actively collaborates with Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Indiana Board of Animal Health, and the Indiana Soybean Alliance. Kwamena is Indiana’s state coordinator for USDA’s North Central Regional Aquaculture Center, state representative on the National Association of State Aquaculture Coordinators and serves on USDA’s aquatic task force that is formulating standards for organic aquaculture nationally.
Dr. Quagrainie’s domestic program is closely integrated with international activities through the USAID-funded Aquaculture and Fisheries Collaborative Research Support Program (AquaFish CRSP). As the Africa AquaFish CRSP project director, Kwamena secured $1.13 million since 2004 for research and outreach, including training in pond record keeping and business management. About 2,000 fish farmers in Tanzania, Kenya and Ghana can now use their farming records to secure bank financing…”
“The transformation is already underway and over the next few years, the factory will become a zero-energy, food business incubator, research facility, education space, and working urban farm. Plant Chicago is already growing greens and mushrooms and will soon start brewing beer and kombucha and raising tilapia in a sustainable system with zero waste.”
Aquaponics are a large part of the plan as well, offering a cyclical and sustainable way to raise fish and plants for food year-round.
Read the complete article and see photos of the building and operations currently in progress at the link above, and additional details about the plans for the business here.