When the Taylor family transitioned out of growing tobacco, they didn’t follow the usual route to organic vegetable production. Instead, they used their tobacco grant money to build a tilapia farm. Taylor Fish Farm in Cedar Grove, North Carolina, raises nutritious, toxin-free tilapia in indoor tanks without polluting the environment. They are IMO and AquaGAP certified, which assures no antibiotic use and “transparency of origin, quality at each stage of production, good aquaculture farming practices that maintain or improve the health of surrounding ecosystems, [and] adherence to principles of corporate social responsibility and a commitment towards local communities.”
We visited the farm last month to see the operation and chat with Renee Stewart and her brother, Valee Taylor. At the end of a gravel drive, we found the barn, the low building that houses the fish tanks, perched over a duckweed-covered pond. Inside, we walked past the massive cement tanks housing growing fish. Originally, Renee and Valee planned to have a contractor build the farm, but their mother suggested they do it themselves. She was sure there was enough talent in the neighborhood to build it right. The Taylors worked with a designer in Raleigh and hired labor from northern Orange County. Many community members who were down on their luck during the recession were able to participate. Because of the local labor, the farm received a small grant from Orange County to help them build. Not using a contractor also saved about 15 percent of the cost.
Valee talked us through the fish life cycle. Taylor Fish Farm buys “fingerlings” (baby fish), which live in a quarantined tank for 36 days after the farm receives them. These tiny fish must be sorted for quality, and about half are deemed unfit and discarded as fertilizer. (It’s better to remove the fish early than to waste money feeding them.) The farm staff also makes sure the fingerlings are healthy, and if they see any problems, they treat with natural cures: hydrogen peroxide and solar salt. Valee and Renee hope to build their own hatchery, which will save them the money of buying fingerlings and give them control over the quality of the fish. Vertical integration, or controlling the process from start to finish, is the farm’s long-term goal.
The small fish are moved to nursery tanks for six more weeks of observation and culling: 15,000 fish swim in each of two tanks, which extend deep into the ground. The system design, allowing for careful observation, is a lot of work but has protected the farm from the disease outbreaks that plague many aquaponic systems. A feed system dispenses feed every thirty minutes, resulting in a small frenzy at the surface. Food accounts for one-third of the cost of running the farm. Valee and Renee could grow their own, but the machine needed to turn it into fish-friendly pellets costs one million dollars. Still, Valee hopes to do it someday. (Valee has experimented with feeding a few fish the duckweed off the pond, and they outgrew the regular fish, but for now, that’s not a viable solution.)
After their time in the nursery, the fish move to the six grow-out tanks, where they live until they are harvested. A circulating current gives the fish something to swim against, and oxygen is added to the water, which comes from the farm’s well. The water is also filtered: it recirculates every minute and a half, so that the ammonia and feces are removed quickly. When the family designed their farm, they sought to improve on problems in the industry, one of which was fish spending time in water with wastes. The filtered-out solids are broken down in an underground tank outside the building using a process that Valee invented.
Before harvest, the fish are “purged” by not feeding them for a week. When the tanks are eventually emptied to harvest the fish, the water drains into the pond. Faster growing fish might be harvested in six months, but slower growing fish are put back (or sometimes culled and donated to a local church) and can live up to a year. (Another benefit of having a hatchery would be selecting faster-growing fish for breeding.) The fish are sent live to the processor in Greensboro, where they’re processed and packaged for our stores.
Valee talked about retiring and passing the farm on to his kids. The crops he still grows are organic, and the fish are grown sustainably, because Valee sees that as the direction food must take, to keep people healthy and reduce incidents of diseases like cancer. He refers to a nonprofit in Conetoe, North Carolina, that started a farm run by local children to provide healthy food to the community. He also recognizes the need to protect the environment. “You know what’s happening with the sea,” he says. “We know the acidity is high, we’re losing a bunch of species…. We’re really killing ourselves. Our generations going to be fine, but what about your great grandchildren?”
“But one thing about human beings,” he continues, “we are very ingenious. We are smart enough to change our systems.”
Visit Taylor Fish Farm online at http://www.taylorfishfarm.com/ and look for their tilapia filets in our stores.