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Agribiz: Aquaculture raises fish to feed hungry market
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Pat Duncan’s eyes light up when she talks about the graceful simplicity of an aquaponics system.

Fish produce ammonia and other waste that feed plants, which clean the water so the fish can thrive. Plant roots produce food for the fish or help foster tiny organisms that feed the fish.

“The beauty of recirculating systems is their flexibility,” she said. “There are all types of ways to grow these fish, and farmers can pick the components that work best and adapt them.”

Duncan is the head of the aquaculture program at Fort Valley State University, a school that’s almost dead center in the middle of Georgia.

While aquaculture still is only a sliver of the overall agricultural production in Georgia, more and more farmers are trying it as a hobby or value-added part of their operation.

The FVSU program — which works with the University of Georgia program to provide extension services to fish farmers — will soon expand with 15 outdoor ponds that are nearly ready for staff to begin growing bass and other fresh-water fish.

For now, though, Duncan works mostly in five greenhouses, raising tilapia and a handful of other fish in order to teach students and farmers how to do the same thing.

Tilapia is a touchy subject for aquaculture proponents in Georgia, where the state legislature rejected a bill last year that would have allowed the fish to be raised in outdoor ponds. Advocates say tilapia has been commercially grown since ancient times for good reason; it’s hardy, grows fast and is a good source of lean protein. Opponents argue that the African fish is an invasive species that would compete with native bream and other fish.

Duncan doesn’t buy it.

“We are not in a tropical region and when water gets below 60 degrees, the tilapia not only won’t reproduce, they started to get sick,” Duncan said.

While some South Georgia growers produce white tilapia for a Toronto market, Duncan thinks a red variety might become a good substitute for red snapper, which was overfished in the 1980s and still has catch limits in Gulf states.

The regular overview seminars that Duncan holds at FVSU have become increasingly popular as more people consider growing their own fish.

“I have been giving these workshops for eight years, but when I did aquaponics in May, without much advertising, 60 people showed,” she said. “The number of people raising fish is starting to reach a critical mass. In a few years, I think we will be there.”

Not all aquaculture is centered around tilapia — FVSU grew marine shrimp in 2006 — but the fish has advantages.

“What I like about tilapia is that once a farmer has gotten started, he can maintain his own stock,” Duncan said.

The recirculating water systems that support fish are all relatively simple, but have different features and variations. At the FVSU workshops, Duncan gives an overview of the different systems and helps participants picture what will work best for them.

“These aren’t all giant systems. You can do this in your garage or an outdoor shed. You can raise fish on less than an acre,” she said. “There are a lot of different ways to get into it and you can gradually grow into something. You don’t have as much initial capital, but you can learn and grow.”

Second to oil, Americans import more seafood than any other single commodity, resulting in a trade deficit of more than $10 billion. Still, half of the fish and shellfish brought into the U.S. were raised on aquaculture farms in other countries.

“Food security. That’s really what it’s all about,” she said. “It is a huge opportunity for Americans to start growing local seafood and get it on the market. People need food they can trust.

“I think this is a way for rural farmers to diversify. They already are in ag, they know how to grow things. For any farmer, the more things that they are able to produce, the more flexibility they have.”

For more information about upcoming aquaculture and aquaponics programs at Fort Valley State University — including one today from 1 to 5 p.m. — contact Pat Duncan atduncanp@fvsu.edu or (478) 825-6335.

Source: GrowingGeorgia.com Author: Allison Floyd

Michael Wheeler is county extension coordinator for the UGA Cooperative Extension in Hall County. You can contact him at 770-535-8293, www.hallcounty.org/extension. His column appears biweekly on Thursday’s Business page and at gainesvilletimes.com.