Fine fish are part
of a diversified farm
by Kathleen Hatt
SPECIAL EDITOR'S NOTE
On January 8, 2012, the Hopewell Farm barn, which housed tilapia, chickens and other animals burned.
"In the aftermath of that awful day," writes Marc Moran on Hopewell Farms' website, "we have been overwhelmed by the ensuing response. From the hugs and handshakes of wellwishers, to the selfless and confident professionalism of the men who saved our house and risked their lives to extinguish the blaze, each day has brought another unexpected barrage of human decency and community support."
At the time this article went to press, plans to re-establish the tilapia operation are uncertain. We offer our deepest condolences and most profound hope that the operation will be able to recover and rebuild.
Tanks of tilapia might be the last thing one expected to find on a New England farm, but at Hopewell Farms in South Newbury, N.H., fish are an integral part of a diversified farming system. This delicately flavored fish is farmed throughout the world, but generally in warmer climates.
Tilapia rise to the surface to eat lettuce grown at Hopewell Farms.
Photos by Kathleen Hatt.
Native to North Africa, tilapia have been introduced and extensively farmed in many parts of Southeast Asia. They are also part of aquacultural projects in other regions. Approximately 1.5 million tons of tilapia are produced worldwide annually at an estimated value of $1.8 billion, an amount approximately equal to that of salmon and trout. The production costs of tilapia are, however, less than those of salmon and trout because tilapia feed on plant-based food, whereas salmon and trout are carnivorous. Sometimes called "aquatic chickens," tilapia also do not put fishing pressure on prey species and do not help concentrate toxins at higher levels of the food chain as carnivorous species do.
Farmed tilapia (as well as some wild species) are mouthbreeders, called cichlids (pronounced sic-lids
). Some tilapia farmers raise only male fish because female tilapia tend to lose large amounts of weight while they are brooding.
A large variety of lettuces, nourished by fish emulsion,
An idea takes fin-tilapia and Hopewell Farms
flourish in Marc Moran's gardens in mid-October.
Lettuces are sold to local restaurants and also fed to tilapia.
Marc and Meredith Moran were considering leaving New Jersey when Meredith was pregnant with their second child. At that time, she was advised not to eat fish because of the heavy metals it many contain. The Morans decided the time was right and began a search for farmland in New Hampshire. In 2008, they settled on an old 70-acre farm in South Newbury. The property has all the elements of an old New England farmstead including rock walls, sugar maples and a woodlot.
Although he comes from a long line of Hopewell, N.J., farmers and was familiar with growing vegetables organically, Marc had never run a diversified farm. With the help of area farmers and YouTube, the Morans' off-the-grid farm was up and running one year after they purchased it. The farm now has 12 Hereford, Simmental and Chianina beef cows, 24 Border Leicester sheep (primarily for meat but fleeces are also sold), 7 Nubian goats, 250 free-range broiler chickens, 200 layers of various varieties including Araucanas and Hampshires, 50 turkeys, and 24 Landrace and other pig crosses. Moran likes the Landrace pigs because they handle winter well. He also grows vegetables for his family of five and sells to people who come to the farm. Greens are grown for two New Hampshire restaurants as well as for the turkeys and fish.
The care and feeding of tilapia on a New England farm
Because tilapia are tolerant of a wide range of conditions and are quite resistant to parasitic infections and diseases, they can be successfully grown in a variety of aquacultural systems. At Hopewell Farms, tilapia are raised in what is known as closed-system aquaculture. This means that water entering the system does not return to the environment as it would if the fish were being farmed in, for example, an ocean bay. Because Moran's tilapia are raised under cover in a barn, they are not exposed to infections from other species or from illnesses carried by wind or rain.
Hopewell Farms' first tilapia fingerlings came from what Moran says is "by far the best producer of stock," Americulture in Animas, N.M., (www.americulture.com
). The fingerlings grow to market size in seven tanks in one corner of a large barn. Water for the 10,000-gallon system is pumped from the farm's wells, and approximately one-tenth-1,000 gallons-evaporates or is circulated out and replaced every week. Bacteria and filtration systems eliminate fish waste, which then becomes fertilizer for crops.
Although tilapia in the wild prefer water temperatures around 85 degrees Fahrenheit, they are adaptable fish and have adjusted to living in 65 degree Fahrenheit water at Hopewell Farms. Because water comes out of the farm's wells at only 42 degrees Fahrenheit, it must be heated. In summer this is accomplished by a passive solar thermal system-1,000 feet of 1-inch black tubing purchased at a cost of $400 and zigzagged across the barn roof. In winter, wood heats the water. Heating water only (not the barn itself) took 10 cords of wood in winter 2010.
Many fish farms use electric oxygenators. There are water bubbles into Moran's tanks, too, but the bubbles are the result of water dropping into the system-in a word: gravity.
Tilapia will eat almost anything, says Moran. He feeds his a minimum of three times a day. Vegetable matter is the bulk of the Hopewell Farms' tilapia diet and includes chopped broccoli, lettuce and, in summer, duckweed. Red compost worms supplement vegetable matter. Tilapia will also eat hay. Hopewell Farm is not certified organic, but does farm organically without the use of what Moran terms "artificial inputs." In order to grow bigger fish faster, large tilapia farms feed a high-protein diet, he says.
In Moran's tilapia tanks, fish are of various ages and sizes. Because tanks are not set up for successional harvesting, Moran nets harvest-size fish (2.5 pounds) individually. Growing tilapia to harvest size in 65 degree Fahrenheit water takes 12 to 18 months, a significantly longer time than growing fish in water 20 degrees warmer. Netted fish are put into a bucket of ice to shock them and slow their breathing. In a dedicated half of a building known as the sugar house, fish are gutted and prepared for market. They are sold as whole fish or as 6 to 8-ounce fillets. There is great demand for his fish, but licensing restrictions currently limit Moran to farm-only sales. He sells 10 to 20 pounds of tilapia a week, although he has the capacity to produce 250 to 300 pounds per week without expanding aquaculture equipment.
Some challenges of raising tilapia
Some of the larger tilapia farms raise only male fish because females loose large amounts of weight while they are mouth brooding. Hormones may be used to convert female fry (newly hatched fish) to male fry. Moran does not do this. He has also allowed different types of tilapia to interbreed, producing increasingly varied types of fish.
Maintaining water temperature at 65 degrees requires careful monitoring and hands-on involvement every day, but especially in winter. "We have had three die-offs," says Moran, "but none due to temperature issues. Tilapia are extremely hardy fish and do not suffer many diseases. They are subject to staph infections, but that is primarily when they are raised outside." Moran did try raising tilapia outside the first summer. Two tanks became infected, and about 100 good-sized fish were lost before he moved the entire operation inside. Even in the barn, an occasional fish is lost to predation.
Another die-off was considerably more puzzling. Routinely checking his tanks, Moran was shocked to find his first order of 1,000 fry tilapia bloated and floating belly-up. An empty Dunkin' Donuts box nearby provided the clue. Tilapia will continue to eat as long as there is food. His then 3-year-old son had fed the fish, and the fish had eaten themselves to death on a jelly donut.
The Morans raise sheep, pigs, beef cattle and tilapia and grow vegetables
at Hopewell Farms in South Newbury, N.H.
"A well-run farm produces zero waste"
As Moran introduces new elements into Hopewell Farm, his aim is to have a constant stream of excess without depleting resources. He also aims to use all the resources, wasting none. To that end, he uses all parts of the fish he grows, turning their remains into fish emulsion for plants.
Growing tilapia with hydroponic vegetables in a greenhouse-a system called aquaponics-is not, however, one of Moran's goals. In order to use plants to filter and cleanse fish tanks, plants would have to be grown throughout the winter, an inefficient and expensive proposition in northern New England. "I'll continue to raise tilapia in my barn," says Moran. "For anyone inclined to raise fish, tilapia is the fish to raise," he adds. "I hope this article encourages someone else in New Hampshire to give tilapia production a go."
Kathleen Hatt is a freelance writer and editor and has been a frequent contributor to Farming since 1998. She resides in Henniker, N.H.
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