Where Soybeans Meet the Sea: Midwest Aquaculture Could Boost Demand for Local Grain

July 8, 2019, 12:30 p.m. ·

Eagle’s Catch general manager Dave Block scoops tilapia out of a tank and into a sorter to separate them by size. (Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media)

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Midwestern fish farmers grow a variety of species, such as tilapia, salmon, barramundi and shrimp, all of which require a high-protein diet. The region grows copious amounts of soybeans, which have a lot of protein, but these two facts have yet to converge.

Take Eagle’s Catch, a tilapia farm in Ellsworth, Iowa, where a nearly 4-acre greenhouse is filled with tanks that segregate the fish by size. CEO Joe Sweeney said he feeds the fish a soybean-based diet he buys from a processor in the South.

“We’re actually getting it from Louisiana, unfortunately,” Sweeney said, “feeding Louisiana and Arkansas soybeans. But as time goes on I look forward to feeding them that Iowa product.”

Across the 12 states served by the North Central Regional Aquaculture Center, from Ohio to North Dakota to Kansas, hundreds of businesses are trying to raise fish for food. But local demand will have to grow to make them viable. If that happens, aquaculture could provide a new market for Midwestern soybeans and other grains at a time when turmoil in international trade and several years of very high yields have led to oversupply.

Eagle’s Catch CEO Joe Sweeney says when the greenhouse is at full capacity, he’ll need 60,000 bushels of soybeans a year to raise the tilapia. He’d like to eventually source that locally in central Iowa. (Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media)

Sweeney’s tilapia are hand-fed five times a day and grow from miniscule to two pounds in about nine months. When the farm is at full capacity, the fish will consume 60,000 bushels of soybeans a year, and he would like to see a local processor come online to make fish feed from area soybeans.

“When you compare them to other livestock, they’re actually getting more protein per pound of feed input than any other animal class,” Sweeney said.

More broadly, aquaculture has huge potential to help meet the needs of a growing world population that’s eating more protein.To achieve that, plant proteins will have to take on a greater role, because many governments and international organizations restrict harvesting wild fish species to feed farmed fish.

“In Iowa, in particular, we can play a huge role globally in terms of providing protein ingredients for the aquaculture industry,” Iowa State University professor Kurt Rosentrater said. He’s been developing soybean-based fish food with many partners, including in Asia, where countries import a lot of U.S. soybeans.

More recently, corn protein — a byproduct of ethanol production — is also showing promise.

“Many of the biorefineries are taking the next step to produce a more concentrated form of corn protein,” Rosentrater said, “and this is one of those things that's really going to be taking the industry by storm the next couple of years.”

“Diets in many respects are cultural-based,” Rosentrater said. “We are, in the Midwest, eating more fish than we used to eat. But still not as much as other parts of the world.”

But even here, frozen, often-imported seafood certainly sells. Five years ago, Julie Tegland and her husband decided to challenge that market. The Forest City, Iowa, couple opened an indoor saltwater shrimp farm in a converted shop behind their house.

“They’re Pacific white shrimp, we get them as babies,” Tegland said. “They’re the size of an eyelash.”

J and J Drydock Shrimp is a direct-to-consumer business that’s part of Healthy Harvest of North Iowa, a local foods network. Tegland said her customers come right to the farm, where freshly harvested shrimp are packed with ice. The shrimp must be sold alive, like Eagle Catch’s tilapia, because neither business is licensed to process their catch.

Sometimes Tegland’s first-time customers are unsure how to de-head and devein the shrimp.

“The majority of our customers, including myself, have never had fresh seafood,” she said, though she is hoping to get to the coast and try fresh shrimp from the ocean some day soon.

Julie Tegland says the shrimp arrive no bigger than an eyelash but quickly grow into something more recognizable. (Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media)

Tegland has a waiting list of customers for the 140 pounds or so of shrimp she harvests every few months. It’s a small business, but one she said is profitable.

One of her major expenses, aside from electricity to keep fans and heaters running, is the shrimp feed. She gets it from a Pennsylvania company that tells her they’re working to increase the amount of soy protein in the formula.

The shrimp eat a diet that changes as they grow. Tegland keeps an array of samples for the different stages. (Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media)

The future of aquaculture is not just soy protein, according to Purdue University fisheries professor Paul Brown. He said researchers are looking at what types of plant proteins could replace soy.

“My goodness, it's lupins, it's pea proteins, it’s any potential commodity that can be further processed into a high-protein ingredient,” Brown said.

He’s watched as different aquaculture trends have waxed and waned, and he’s heard of grain co-ops in the region expressing some interest in making fish feed.

And there’s still a lot of trial and error in the industry. Brown visited a Missouri business that attempted to raise walleye but discovered the fish wasn’t a good match for the site’s cool spring water. The owners switched to salmon.

“They've been making money and selling live salmon into St. Louis and Kansas City market ever since,” Brown said.

It doesn’t mean fish barns, or greenhouses, are about to take over the Midwest farmscape. But someday they may be a more prominent feature.


Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Harvest covers these agriculture-related topics through an expanding network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.