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Daviess County Aquafarm Brings Locally Raised Tilapia to Regional Marketplace

A father and son who share an entrepreneurial spirit are bringing a new product from their Kentucky farm to the regional marketplace. 

Tilapia is the first locally-raised fish from the Daviess County aquafarm. The project is part of Kentucky’s fledgling aquaculture industry that produces fish for commercial customers.

Inside the greenhouse at Thomas Aquafarms in Daviess County, water is constantly flowing through nine bright blue tanks that are shoulder height and eight feet in diameter. Each tank has about 500 tilapia of various sizes swimming around.

Forrest Wynne, an aquaculture extension specialist for Kentucky State University, is dropping a probe into one of the tanks.

“It’s a dissolved oxygen meter. We’d like this to be up around 5. That would be ideal. This one’s a little low, about 4.2," said Wynne. "Dissolved oxygen is the most important parameter. The fish can suffocate with too low dissolved oxygen.”

Wynne is at Thomas Aquafarms with two other aquaculture specialists.

“We’re trying just to get some people that are interested, get them a foothold, get them to be able to market their product and be successful," said Wynne. "That’s kind of what we’re doing here today.”

He says there are a handful of aquafarms in Kentucky raising fish for commercial use.

“We have a lot of imported product coming into the country and quite frankly a lot of that product may be regulated or it may not. You just don’t know what you’re buying when you buy a lot of imported products.”

He says in addition to diversification for farmers, more fish coming from Kentucky aquafarms would be a plus for consumers, who are increasingly interested in healthy, locally-sourced food.

“And that’s one of the selling points for locally-grown fish like this. One, the carbon footprint is less because it’s not being trucked around the world," said Wynne. "And secondly, this fellow and his family are here, you know, you can come by and take a look. There’s more accountability behind the product.”

Eric Thomas, 22,  and his dad, Rick Thomas, collaborated on the aquaculture project to raise fish on the family’s 34 acre farm. Eric says he became interested in koi when he was eight years old. Now he has a business building koi ponds.

“So I used my knowledge that I got from koi and put it towards the systems that we’ve got implemented for tilapia," Eric Thomas said. "The greenhouse has been running for about one full year now and it’s been a very steep learning curve.”

Thomas says the nine tanks are divided into three closed systems.

“It’s a biosecurity thing to where if one system gets a disease or a parasite, it doesn’t affect the other systems.” 

He says he has plans for the three different systems.

“So we can have salt in one tank and grow marine shrimp, or we can have cold water in one tank and raise rainbow trout, while the other tank is 95 degrees and freshwater for tilapia.”

Thomas has already taken tilapia to the Owensboro Regional Farmers Market and sold nearly 300 fish in the past few weeks. Now he’s offering tilapia to local restaurants.

Researcher Noel Novelo says Eric and Rick Thomas are innovators offering a new product at the right time.

“The market in the U.S., generally tilapia is in high demand,” said Novelo, a specialist in aquaculture genetics at Kentucky State University working on ways to improve production of tilapia to help meet the demand.

“For example, in the Kroger in Frankfort, Kentucky, the filets themselves are flown in directly from Honduras on ice, they are never frozen, and they are gone within a few days.”

Andrew Ray is an assistant professor of aquaculture production at Kentucky State University whose specialty is shrimp.

“There’s a variety of shrimp aquaculture operations throughout the country. Indiana has quite a few and Iowa has quite a few,” said Ray. “I’m trying to bring some of this expertise to Kentucky and get some of our farmers doing this, to introduce a new product, to innovate and diversify our agricultural portfolio here.”

Ray says there are currently two farms in Kentucky raising shrimp, Rolling Blue Farm in Fayette County and Faul Family Riverside Farm in Henry County.

Thomas Aquafarms in Daviess County plans to soon add its name to that list.. Eric Thomas says he already his permit from Kentucky Fish and Wildlife to raise, transport and sell shrimp.

Rhonda Miller began as reporter and host for All Things Considered on WKU Public Radio in 2015. She has worked as Gulf Coast reporter for Mississippi Public Broadcasting, where she won Associated Press, Edward R. Murrow and Green Eyeshade awards for stories on dead sea turtles, health and legal issues arising from the 2010 BP oil spill and homeless veterans.
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