"There's a lot more to it than throwing feed in the pond once a day." -- Robert Pierce
SIKESTON -- As growing frustration in the agriculture business continues, other farmers are checking into another trade of farm life -- aquaculture.
"Aquaculture has always been quite an interest for Missouri farmers," said Dr. Bob Pierce of the University Outreach and Extension Office in Columbia.
Fish Farmer Robert O. Pierce of Caruthersville has been cultivating a channel catfish farm for over 20 years. Since land near the river isn't as productive as other farm land due to flooding and land dirt being barred too low, Pierce decided to build ponds instead of farm it. He leveled the bottoms and built levees to develop the current 250-acre fish farm.
"There's a lot more to it than throwing feed in the pond once a day," Robert Pierce assured. "There's a lot of night work involved."
Robert Pierce said there's a lot of delays with fish production. He said it's not like a normal crop. Fish farmers need to have financial stability and quite a bit of equipment, he added.
A graduate of Mississippi State University, fish farm production was something taught to Robert Pierce in college, and he continues to receive updated information on aquaculture, he said. He's even given farm tours to university and high school agriculture students and U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson and Sen. Jean Carnahan.
Robert Pierce said they currently stock around 5,000 fingerlings, or baby fish, per acre compared to their initial stocking of 1,200-1,500 per acre. His farm is located below Hayti and near Dyersburg, Tenn., across the Mississippi River, and around Interstates 55 and 155.
"Aquaculture extension specialists across the Midwest have seen an increase in the number of hog producers and other farmers interested in converting their existing buildings into fish production facilities," said Bart Hawcroft, an aquaculture specialist with the Missouri Department of Agriculture in a recent statement. "Aquaculture is a growing segment of Missouri's agriculture industry, and we want to provide producers with the information they need to get started in the business."
For this reason, the Missouri Department of Agriculture is offering a workshop Nov. 16 at the Cole County University Outreach and Extension Center in Jefferson City.
Dr. Pierce said the workshop is geared to farmers who have existing farm buildings and are interested in fish farm production, not pond culture aquaculturalists. However, anyone interested in aquaculture may attend the workshop, he said.
The workshop will center around a live, interactive satellite broadcast featuring experts from across the United States who raise fish using recirculating aquaculture-technologies and other farmers who have successfully converted agricultural buildings into fish culture systems.
The best advice Robert Pierce would give farmers looking into the fish production business is to do their research. They need to know what they're getting into from the start, he said.
"It can get really intense. We have someone who stays up all night to check the oxygen every two hours in all 15 of our ponds. Maintaining the oxygen at night is very difficult, especially in the summer," Robert Pierce said.
From March through October or November, fish are seined twice each week. From November to February, the fish really become dormant and water temperatures must be monitored closely.
"It's nice to be able to make a production with nonproducing land," Robert Pierce noted.
Through the years, price on fish has deteriorated some, but ultimately the fish business has worked well for Robert Pierce, he said.
It's not necessarily as profitable as other farming, but it can be, and there is potential for a profitable production, Dr. Pierce said. Raising fish requires a lot of expertise and day-to-day maintenance, he said.
Raising freshwater shrimp is another current topic under aquaculture. Both Robert Pierce and Dr. Pierce have heard of farmers raising freshwater shrimp in Tennessee and Illinois.
Experts are learning what it takes to cultivate tropic shrimp and adapt them to a cooler climate, and therefore making it possible for Midwest farmers to harvest freshwater shrimp.
"I know a farmer in Tennessee who's harvesting freshwater shrimp," Robert Pierce said. "We need to check into it. I imagine the culture is similar to fish."
Registration for the workshop begins at 8 a.m. with the broadcast following at 8:30 a.m. Advance registration is $15 and payment is due by Nov. 12 to the Missouri Aquaculture Association, P.O. Box 6864, Jefferson City, MO 65102, or participants may pay $20 at the door. Registration fee includes lunch, a workbook and a tour of Lincoln University's recirculating system.