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Hog farmers fish for new markets

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Jeff (left) and Mark Nelson are partners in Iowa's First, an aquaculture business. They've converted a hog barn into a facility filled with fish tanks.(Pat Blank/Iowa Public Radio)
Jeff (left) and Mark Nelson are partners in Iowa's First, an aquaculture business. They've converted a hog barn into a facility filled with fish tanks.(Pat Blank/Iowa Public Radio)
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Reporter, Iowa Public Radio

Jeff and Mark Nelson have raised corn and hogs with little fanfare for years on their farm outside Blairsburg in central Iowa. But an effort to diversify their operation has bought the cousins statewide attention – and a new customer base.

After three years of research and traveling all over the country, the cousins are raising hybrid striped bass in an old hog barn in eighteen 10,000-gallon tanks.

“We start out with about 12,000 fish in a tank,” Jeff Nelson said. “We want to keep the density down so there’s plenty of room for them, and so they’re graded twice and by the time they’re market ready there’s probably 3,000 fish in the tank.”

The operation – called Iowa’s First  — is already the largest fish-for-food facility in the state and provides bass for restaurants, plus a processor in Minnesota. And Nelson said they have a fresh advantage.

“A lot of times if it’s shipped to them from another location three to five days is what they have to get it served, whereas we’ve heard them say that 10 days after they’ve gotten our fish it’s still as fresh as the day they got it,” he said.

Farm-raised fish has been tried before in Iowa — mostly involving outdoor ponds and catfish — with limited success. By moving their venture inside, the Nelsons have been able to control more factors.

If you’ve ever had an aquarium, you know that keeping it clean can be a hassle, but in this case the water is put through a recirculation process.

“We filter the solid wastes out of the water and run it through a biological filter and that changes all the toxic parts of the water into non-toxic components and so we can continue the water over and over again,” said Allen Patillio, an aquaculture specialist at Iowa State University who has been advising the Nelsons.

Patillio and others at Iowa State have been seeking out grants to help bolster the aquaculture industry in Iowa.

“Our goal is to create a vertically integrated type cooperative system so that we can have a feed processor as well a fish processor and a lot of fish farmers around the area,” Patillio said.

That idea makes a lot of sense to Ray Hansen who directs Iowa State’s Valued-Added Ag Program.  He said last year’s drought and this year’s wet weather may have many farmers looking for ways to diversify.

“Certainly it’s difficult and challenging to find, let alone afford, adding ground to increase your farming operation. And there’s pretty significant expense in starting or adding to a livestock operation,” Hansen said. “So this is kind of interesting and a unique twist on how to get involved or  expand your farm  operation.”

The Nelsons are still experimenting. They’ve installed a tank in another part of the barn and are attempting to raise shrimp.   They still custom-feed hogs in addition to growing corn and soybeans, but Jeff Nelson said he believes he’s found the best part of doing chores on the fish farm.

“One thing nice about coming in here, your clothes don’t stink when you leave,” he said.