Archive for Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Farmer quits dairy, making wave with fish farming

May 28, 2008

A decade ago Jeff Meyer decided to give up his family's century-old tradition of dairy farming.

"I was a fourth generation (dairy farmer), and it was all I knew," he said recently. "It was extremely hard on the family."

But the dairy industry and the economics behind it were changing, making it unprofitable for Meyer to continue without a major expansion.

"To expand in this part of the country with all the residential growth, it wouldn't have been wise," he said.

Today, Meyer has no regrets. At their Cal-Ann Farms in Basehor, he and his wife, Pam, along with their grown children - daughters Michelle and Rebecca and son Nicholas - operate a successful indoor fish farm raising Nile tilapia. They combine the fish operation with the growing of vegetables in a greenhouse by utilizing an aquaponics system. The nutrient-rich wastewater from the fish tanks is pumped into the vegetable plant beds. The water, minus the waste, is recirculated back into the tanks.

Basil operation

In another greenhouse, Pam Meyer oversees the growing of living basil. Instead of soil, the small plants grow in peat. Using hydroponics, the minerals that are found in soil are dissolved in water, which is carried to the plants. It takes four to five weeks for basil to grow from seed to maturity. The Meyers sell about 170 cases of basil a week to supermarkets.

They also produce 150 to 200 pounds of tilapia a week. On Fridays - harvest day - live fish are loaded onto a truck and hauled to two stores: the Asian 888 Market in Overland Park and Super Value Food in Kansas City, Mo.

"We kind of have a niche market," Jeff said. "Tilapia are especially popular with the Asian and Hispanic cultures."

But why raise tilapia?

Their popularity in general is increasing, and they adjust well to aquaponics, Jeff said.

"They are hardy fish. They are pretty much bulletproof," he said.

There also is a growing demand for locally grown products, Pam said.

"People like to know where they are coming from," she said.

Learning curve

The Meyers had a lot to learn when they made the switch from milking cows to growing basil and raising tilapia.

"It was like going into a big black hole," was how Pam described it. "We took it in small steps, and we tried some things without diving into it too fast."

They sought advice from others in the business as well as information on the Internet. Jeff attended a seminar in the Virgin Islands to learn about aquaponics and tilapia. They installed the new systems and monitoring devices. They also utilized or adapted some of their milking facilities to the new operation. The milking pit in the dairy shed was converted to a 15,000-gallon fish tank. It now holds up to 4,000 tilapia.

The tilapia are shipped to Cal-Ann from a breeder in Louisiana. The baby tilapia, only a fourth to half an inch long, are kept in a separate nursery tank until they are ready for the big tank next door. It takes seven months for tilapia to reach maturity. They are shipped to stores when they weigh a little over a pound.

"There are different species of tilapia, and we experimented with them for a while," Jeff said. "What we have now is a Nile hybrid."

Indoor farming

The Meyers credit their success to being able to hire a few good employees and friends and neighbors who have always been willing to help.

Although the dairy business is long gone, Jeff still raises some cattle and crops. Some of the same concerns he has about outdoor farming also apply to the indoor operation. That includes the weather. Wind and hail could damage the greenhouses. Fire is always a concern.

"It's indoor farming, but it's still farming," Jeff said. "You try to be careful and hope the good Lord looks out for you."

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