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Hog farm to trout farm is amazing fish story in Sutton
On a steamy summer day at Blue Valley Aquaculture in Sutton, Nebraska, thousands of silver steelhead trout dart into long columns of splashing, cold water and visitors feel a refreshing rush of cool, oxygenated air. The bubbling, rushing water and silvery glints of teeming fish represent an extraordinary transition – physically and culturally – from a hog confinement operation to a fish farm.
In 1998, a hog confinement business came up for sale, and brothers Jeff and Kurt Shelkopf had the vision to see beyond pigs to how fresh water pumped directly out of the Ogallala aquifer would be ideal habitat for raising fish.
Dave Claridge, a biologist and agronomist who joined their team said, “When I saw Jeff and Kurt power-washing and disinfecting the old hog buildings, I was doubtful. Not many people take over a hog barn and raise fish in it. But as it turns out, hog confinement businesses adapt to fish culture really well, because the buildings are usually cement block, with drains in the floors leading to ponds. We added tanks, pumps to pump fresh water from the aquifer into the fish holding tanks and back up generators to ensure that oxygen is constantly aerating the water.”
Water in the tanks is recirculated through biological filters to separate solid wastes and ammonia, Claridge says, “We reuse the water to the greatest extent possible, and then it is recycled into ponds for the culture of fathead minnows and goldfish. We sell the minnows to bait buyers and the goldfish to aquariums where they are used as feeder fish.” Surplus water is pumped into a 70 acre wetland where it percolates down into the aquifer again.
The original plan
Growing yellow perch was the original plan. Demand for yellow perch is high and commercial harvests from the Great Lakes and Canada have failed to keep pace with market demands.
Yellow perch fry – the term for just-hatched fish – are started in ponds where they eat zooplankton, microscopic organisms growing naturally in warm farm ponds. When the fry grow to two or three inches – called fingerlings – they are brought inside to the fish tanks where they learn to eat a fishmeal diet. Within weeks, the fingerlings are shipped to the fish grower’s equivalent of a feedlot, where they are grown to approximately one pound, and are harvested, cleaned, packaged and sold.
The original plan called for Blue Valley to hatch and grow 6-8 million yellow perch from fry to fingerling size, and then ship the fingerlings to a St. Croix, Wisconsin fishery for finishing and harvest. But after three years of growing perch, the company that bought the fingerlings went out of business. Finishing the fingerlings into one-pound fish takes too long in Nebraska because water from the aquifer is between 50 and 52 degrees F. and the temperature doesn’t vary between summer and winter. Without heating the water to the perch’s preferred 60-62 degrees, growing a one-pound perch in Nebraska requires three years. When it was obvious raising yellow perch wasn’t efficient or profitable, the entrepreneurial brothers Shelkopf and Claridge needed to reinvent their business.
A different kettle of fish.
One of the definitions of an entrepreneur is one finds ways over, around or through barriers. After some research on different species Claridge and the Shelkopfs selected Donaldson Steelhead Trout. Says Claridge: “We chose steelhead trout over rainbow trout because we tried the steelhead and preferred the flavor and firm texture.”
Steelhead trout thrive in cooler water and are market-ready in a year. They are actually native to the West Coast where they grow in the ocean and return to freshwater streams to lay their eggs. In the Blue Valley aquaculture system, the steelhead are hatched, grown from fry to fingerling, and finished to market size on a soybean fish diet developed by the University of Nebraska. Blue Valley controls all aspects of the business, managing the growing, harvesting, packaging, marketing and delivery of the product.
Amber Moore, a marketing specialist with a degree in culinary arts and food service management, returned to her home town to handle the marketing aspects of the business. Among her jobs has been designing a logo and developing a Web site (www.bluevalleyfish.com), as well as creating brochures and mailing lists to get the word out to customers.
A variety of products
Blue Valley Aquaculture sells the steelhead as stocker fish for private ponds and also grows trophy fish for purchase by private landowners. Claridge says, “The trophy fish are about five to seven pounds each and are an exciting fish to catch.”
Crabby Bill’s, a restaurant in the Lincoln Haymarket District, buys a ruby-red steelhead fish grown at Blue Valley by feeding a natural compound found in ocean krill that enhances the red color of the flesh. Blue Valley steelhead trout will also be served at training tables for University of Nebraska athletes in 2008 as well as university food service outlets on the campus.
Blue Valley steelhead trout are clean, wholesome fish. Claridge says, “The fish are fed natural food, and we don’t add antibiotics .We never see El-coli or salmonella bacteria in the trout, although we test for that. Customers like the flavor, the texture, ease of preparation and health benefits of the fish. Health conscience people especially appreciate the product because the fish are an excellent source of omega-3 oils.”
As the public becomes more health conscious, trout becomes an appealing low-fat protein source. Blue Valley Aquiculture’s sales have doubled in a year and a half, and they have plans to expand if growth continues.
“Nebraska has abundant, high quality water,” Claridge says, “and Nebraskans are willing to try Nebraska products.” So look for “Fresh Nebraska Trout” popping up in grocery stores and on menus near you (there’s a “Where to Find Us” button on their Website at www.bluevalleyfish.com). And if you don’t see it, ask for it.