Archive for Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The new wave of farming

Family dives into fishing operation

Jeff Meyer explains how he made the switch from dairy farming to running a fishing operation, including converting a milking pit in his old dairy shed to a 15,000-gallon fish tank.

Jeff Meyer explains how he made the switch from dairy farming to running a fishing operation, including converting a milking pit in his old dairy shed to a 15,000-gallon fish tank.

May 20, 2008


Tilapia venture a success

Ten years ago a Basehor family switched from dairy farming to raising fish called tilapia. Enlarge video

— 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."


bondmen 10 years ago

This is good old American dedication to a real, productive change; a change which makes a better, more secure future. The historic former business operating window was closing (profits declining) and though the future was uncertain, the family found a new way to operate a profitable family farming business through study and observation. With hard work, ingenuity and a little help from friends, the change to a new product and a new market was successful. It's a great example of how to make change productive for all of us who find ourselves in the buggy whip industry!

farmngirl 10 years ago

Actually multidisciplinary, basil is in a ton of foods! Most likely if you have EVER eaten out, you've eaten basil and not even known it! Basil is in SOO many Italian foods, not the mention the countless numbers of soups and sauces, and it adds wonderful flavor! You may think basil is "nasty" but obviously there are quite a few people who disagree with you!

Ragingbear 10 years ago

This is a very good example. The only real drawbacks are 1. Tilapia aren't really the tastiest fish and 2. Farm raised fish have flesh significantly different than fish in the wild.This is not to knock this guy at all. This is an issue that all fish farmers have had since fish farming was created.

Newcomb 10 years ago

This is great. I"m going to show this story to my students as an example of how important a thorough, balanced education is regardless of occupation or career. For this guy to make this kind of transition, you know he's got some smarts and an understanding of how to learn.

gccs14r 10 years ago

"100 head of good dairy cattle with a self producing silage system, about 160 acres and $500,000 dollar investment could yield around $18,000 per month in milk sales."You ignore the cost of the 160 acres, service on the $500k note, and operational costs. That $18k can disappear really quickly. You also ignore that the basil is contributing to his bottom line and taking care of his solid waste problem.

newsreader 10 years ago

He said he couldn't compete without a major expansion, I'm sure it's just like the cattle industry... as meat prices rise, it's expected that the farmer will absorb the costs not Tyson or whomever... Good for them to find something else that works and not expect a Government handout to help them!!

igby 10 years ago

200 lb. per week times $4.00 per pound delivered equals $800, time 4.3 equals $3,440 per month less feeding, antibio-supplement and of course water and electric not including other strange hidden cost; may be $2,400 per month.100 head of good dairy cattle with a self producing silage system, about 160 acres and $500,000 dollar investment could yield around $18,000 per month in milk sales.

LogicMan 10 years ago

With the much higher milk prices now, how would his economics compare?

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