A little perch on the prairie: Indiana farm helps satisfy the world's growing appetite for seafood
Chicago Tribune (MCT) - Back in 1843, Michael H. Miller's family arrived in this corner of Delaware County, Ind., to become farmers. The farmhouse where Miller's mother grew up still stands just a short distance away from the cluster of anonymous, warehouse-like buildings where Miller does his "farming" today.
It's called Bell Aquaculture. Less than 4 years old, Bell Aquaculture is marking 2009 with two milestones: the first introduction of its frozen perch fillets into the market, and the January opening of a 28,000-square-foot corporate headquarters and processing plant in nearby Redkey, Ind.
This venture in what was a farm field represents a growing tide of interest in aquaculture, in which fish and shellfish are farmed to feed the world's growing hunger for seafood.
"There's a whole variety of entrepreneurial activity," said Michael Rubino, aquaculture program manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration based in Silver Spring, Md. He noted that some of these ventures are located on the coasts, others farther out to sea and some, like Bell Aquaculture or the Desert Sweet Shrimp company in Gila Bend, Ariz., are cropping up far inland.
Mrs. Paul and the Gorton's fisherman won't have to be making room for Bell's frozen perch in the supermarket any time soon. Miller is trying to hook restaurants first. The fish will be offered breaded or unbreaded and seasoned in a variety of ways, including Cajun-style. Fresh perch fillets may also be available to restaurants soon, Miller said.
Delaware County is the initial market, but Miller, who grew up in Evanston, Ill., hopes to have at least one client in Chicago by next year.
Miller is clearly treading cautiously.
"We want to overdeliver and underpromise," he said.
Miller thinks Bell Aquaculture will fill a hunger for yellow perch.
Certainly Bell's numbers are staggering. Miller's company will generate about 106,000 pounds of perch fillets this year and 2.6 million pounds in 2010.
He wants 8.5 million pounds of perch fillets produced in 2015. That's about 42 million fish. The scale dwarfs anything in the perch industry today.
"There may be some ma and pa fisheries pulling in 50,000 to 60,000 pounds," he said. "But they don't have the consistency we have."
Forty-six tanks of various shapes and sizes, most holding 15,000 gallons of water and seemingly countless fish, serve as the setting in which the perch hatch and grow to maturity. Great pains are taken to replicate the rhythms of nature, especially with Bell's breeding stock. Spawning in the wild takes place in spring. For year-round production or reproduction, the fish farm had to come up with its own schedule of seasons. To trick the breeder fish into thinking "winter" has arrived, the water is slowly cooled to 40 degrees. For "summer," the water is brought up to 72 degrees.
A perch born at Bell Aquaculture can expect to live about a year. That's how long it takes to grow to maturity under farmed conditions, Miller said, noting it may take two or three years for a perch to mature in the wild.
"Our fish aren't foraging for food like the perch in Lake Michigan or Lake Erie," Miller said.
The farmed perch are so used to their feeding schedule that the fish rise to the surface of their tanks, hundreds of twisting bodies and gaping mouths, whenever the shadow of a passing human falls across the water.
"Some of them act like house pets," said Miller, who noted that it's very hard for workers to dine on the first of their farm-raised fish because they have come to view these perch rather as pets themselves.
When it's time for the perch to, um, depart, Bell Aquaculture uses a process Miller describes as "chill kill." The fish are moved from the 72-degree water they're used to and plunged into 32-degree water. The sharp difference in temperature literally shocks them to death.
The dead fish are then packed in ice and taken to the Redkey plant for processing and freezing.
Miller and others at Bell Aquaculture take great pride in being environmentally sensitive in all aspects of the operation. He's even talking of turning the parts of the fish not used for food into fertilizer that neighboring farmers could use.
It took 12 years of research, hours of consulting with fish experts and finding an investor, (Brian Baldwin, Bell's chairman and chief executive officer) to get Bell Aquaculture launched. The scale of the adventure is not lost on Miller.
"One word, 'aquaculture,' has turned into this whole farm," he said. That Bell Aquaculture is a farm that feeds people is important to him.
And he relates that to a lesson he learned in business school.
"They train you to think of widgets," he said. "Fish seemed a good widget that feeds people."
MEET THE YELLOW PERCH
Yellow perch, or Perca flavescens, is found in lakes and some rivers, from west central Canada east to New Brunswick, down to South Carolina and west to Kansas, according to the University of Michigan's Animal Diversity Web site.
There is sports and commercial fishing for yellow perch in the Great Lakes, predominantly in Lake Erie. Though Lake Erie stock has rebounded in recent years, Bell Aquaculture said the commercial catch overall has been reduced dramatically since the 1980s, making it more difficult for restaurants to consistently buy yellow perch.
© 2009, Chicago Tribune.
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