Opinion Profiles
Cornfields, windmills, and….fish farms?

January 25, 2016
By John Nickum


Everything seemed out of place as I drove into the parking area of the VeroBlue barramundi aquaculture facility – starting with a sign that read “Iowa’s First”.  I knew that I had followed the directions I had been given – the metal buildings typical of Midwest hog rearing facilities were there and the big towers for wind powered generators were visible just beyond the cornfields.  Never-the-less, the idea of rearing barramundi, a fish native to Australia, at this site didn’t seem quite reasonable or even feasible.

 I wondered to myself… if this works, what’s next… Atlantic salmon farming in New York’s Central Park, salmon farming on the Chicago waterfront, or fish tanks on the National Mall in Washington, DC?

 Cameron Robinson, consultant/manager greeted me. Cameron is the President and CEO of Kebapskitk Consulting Service and serves as a consultant to VeroBlue. I signed in… everyone signs in… and out.  Foot baths for disinfection rest at each doorway.  Bio-security is a top priority for VeroBlue.  And my tour of the barramundi production facilities in central Iowa began.

 VeroBlue is complex in day-to-day operations and in corporate structure. The facility in central Iowa started operations as Iowa’s First, owned and operated by cousins Jeff and Mark Nelson, who decided to switch from hog production to fish production.  The buildings formerly used for hogs to be converted to fish production.  In 2014, VeroBlue purchased Iowa’s First facilities with Mark in charge of mechanical operations and Jeff as part-time in management and marketing.  Jeff also still manages the nearby family farm’s traditional agriculture operations.

 The fish-rearing component of VeroBlue’s barramundi farm is also complex and is based on an innovative patented opposing flow technology and individualized recirculation units designed to function with a separate bio-filter unit for each tank.  VeroBlue is the exclusive global distributer for the opposing flows systems.  Rick Sheriff is the patent holder for opposing flow fish systems and opposing flow shrimp systems.

 In the opposing flow system, water is raised to the top level within each tank by air lift and injected along the surface from both sides of the tank creating a thorough mixing of fresh aerated water throughout the tank.  Water flows out of each tank into a fluidized bio-filter unit.

 Waste water from six tanks passes through a drum filter to remove solid wastes, before being re-circulated back to the tank inflow pipes.  (See for complete information on the system.)

 A complete 12-Pack system includes twelve 10,000 gallon tanks (46’ long, 9’ wide and 52” tall/deep), drum filters, blowers (all water is moved throughout the system with blown air which also oxygenates and removes CO2 in the process), “cablevey” feed system including conveyer, drops and bulk feed bin, water pumps and material for blown air and water filtration systems.  Because the system is designed to be operated inside and protected from the elements, predators (and poachers); appropriate buildings, electrical utilities, and a small land area for a waste pond are additional requirements.

 The Opposing Flows systems typically are sold as turn-key packages and can be installed nearly any place where required permits can be obtained and a modest water supply is available.  A system of twenty four tanks requires a building of approximately 27,500 sq ft and should be able to produce nearly 500,000 pounds of barramundi annually.

 The VeroBlue facility operates on a water supply of approximately 10 gpm (~38 lpm) and discharges waste water into a lined pond with a surface area of approximately one acre (~0.4 hectare).  Water is supplied by a well that pumps from an aquifer approximately 400 feet below the land surface.  A second facility located a few miles away is somewhat larger than the original facility.  Deep aquifers supply water of higher temperature in temperate climates, such as Iowa.

 VeroBlue managers are interested in several species that potentially can be reared in the system.  Tilapia have been produced in other locations and research is underway for steelhead, king salmon, and Atlantic salmon production, but for now the Iowa facility is focused on barramundi, a species with high market value.  Steelhead probably will be the next species produced in full market mode.

 The barramundi brood stock are in Australia where fertilized eggs are incubated and newly hatched fry are initially fed live food (rotifers, followed by Artemia), before being converted to formulated feed pellets. Soon after converting to pellets, the fingerlings (~5’’/12.5 cm) are flown express delivery to America for rearing to market size.

 The American phase of the rearing program is based completely on pellets (maximum size, 5.5mm). The relatively high protein feed (45 %) with 18 % fat is produced by several suppliers which buffers potential risk to supply.

 A system called the “six-pack stock, tank splitting system” is used to prevent over-crowding, maintain rapid growth, and separate faster growing fish to prevent cannibalism.  Approximately 12,000 fingerlings are placed in one 10,000 gallon tank and reared for one to two months.  They are then graded by size and placed in two tanks; generally about 6,000 per tank. At the end of four months, the fish are graded and separated again into three tanks with approximately 4,000 fish per tank.  Two months later, the fish average about two pounds each and are ready for market.  If they are scheduled for a filet market they may be kept a couple of weeks longer.  Live market fish may be as small as 1.5 lbs.  Using the “six-pack” system allows the farmer to produce two crops per year from a set of six tanks.  A system of 48 tanks could be operated to produce a market crop every two weeks.

 Marketing is always a major consideration in aquaculture, and VeroBlue has established relationships with a number of retail and food service companies, as well as processors.  Selling live fish for restaurants and selected grocery/super markets adds another aspect to sales.       Processing relationships with local operators provide the opportunity to certify VeroBlue fish as Kosher adding another market.  As contract growers are added to the VeroBlue production system, reliability of supply will further solidify production and markets.            VeroBlue will supply the fingerlings and contract growers will pay for most of the production costs, such as, feed, labor, and utilities. VeroBlue will market the fish and provide payment based on a previous 90 day rolling average market price reducing some price volatility.

 I have been a proponent of land-based recirculation systems for finfish aquaculture since the earliest days of my career.  The advantages of requiring relatively low water volumes, minimal effluents, daily observations of the fish, and complete control of the production system offset the inherent problems caused by having to manage another biological system, the bio-filter.  The Opposing Flows technology seems to have minimized bio-filter operational problems with its system of small individual tank filters and a drum filter for every six tanks.

 Given the successful production of barramundi in an Iowa cornfield, it does not seem unreasonable to believe that production facilities adjacent to large metropolitan markets will appear soon for barramundi, tilapia, steelhead, salmon, and other moderate to high value fish.

John Nickum 

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