Monday, February 21, 2011

One Fish, Two Fish

I love writing for Lancaster Farming. I get to tour places I wouldn't be able to visit and see how different kinds of agriculture works. Recently, I had a chance to cover a farm that doesn't look anything like a conventional farm. (LF 1/22/11 A5)

Blue Ridge Aquaculture (BRA) in Martinsville, Virginia is the world's largest indoor fish farm. The facility is in an ordinary looking industrial park, but the operation inside is anything but ordinary. In its 100,000 square foot facility on less than two and a half acres of land, BRA raises over 4,000,000 pounds of tilapia every year. In contrast, using the National Cattlemen's Beef Association statistics, less than 10,000 pounds of beef could be produced on the same acreage and not in an industrial park. It also takes about six times as much feed to produce one pound of beef as it does to produce a pound of tilapia.

BRA uses an indoor recirculating aquaculture system to grow the tilapia minimizing any environmental impact. About 85 percent of the water is returned to the system and the waste is filtered out for other uses. BRA is experimenting with raising herbs and vegetables in the nitrogen rich water, and the solids can be used to fuel methane digesters.

Fish are packed together in 35,000 gallon tanks, but unlike other large scale animal production which may require the prophylactic use of antibiotics and growth hormones to overcome stress caused by high animal densities, the tilapia actually benefit. Being packed together makes the fish less territorial and aggressive and improves health and growth rates.

We're used to thinking of seafood as a healthy, low fat protein. Over 80 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported, however, making it by far the most imported food consumed in the country. Seafood is very susceptible to contaminants like mercury, antibiotics and hormones, and less than five percent of the seafood coming into the country is tested.

Dairy farmers contribute to a marketing campaign promoting dairy products. Everyone knows the "Got Milk" commercials. Domestic seafood producers could benefit from a similar program. I know I would buy domestic over imported if I had the choice. American seafood is cleaner, safer and a healthier choice.

Blue Ridge Aquaculture sells 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of live fish every day to distributors in New York, Boston, Washington D.C., and Toronto. It is a fantastic idea, enabling producers to raise healthy protein near population centers and in places where it would be almost impossible to farm any other way.

If your interested, you can find more information a Thanks to Jim Franklin for showing me around and Lancaster Farming for giving me the opportunity to cover this new kind of farm.