In a region better known for NASCAR and manufacturing plants, Blue Ridge Aquaculture has become the country's biggest producer of indoor-raised tilapia, according to The Roanake Times.
Displaced furniture workers harvest more than 5,000 fish every day from this farm near Martinsville Speedway.
They pump them into white tanks that – like some of the chairs they used to assemble – are hauled in 18-wheeler trucks to buyers in Washington, Toronto and points in between.
Some 35 people work for Blue Ridge Aquaculture, an 18-year-old company that has become the country's biggest producer in its niche market: indoor-raised tilapia. Innovative businesses such as this one are changing the work force in a region better known for its NASCAR races and manufacturing plants that closed because their production was out-sourced.
Blue Ridge Aquaculture produces four million pounds of tilapia annually, thousands of miles from the fish's natural tropical habitat. The company is looking to expand by growing shrimp and cobia.
"Our facility is maxed out for production right now," said James Franklin, the company's vice president.
Finding its market
Before Blue Ridge Aquaculture found its market, President and CEO, William Martin, had other careers. He got his professional start working for the Martinsville Bulletin, a daily newspaper that his father published.
Martin was publishing a small newspaper in West Memphis, Ark., when he read about research on indoor fish farming. He later traded commodities and sold commercial real estate before starting Blue Ridge Fisheries in 1986, raising catfish in tanks filled with recirculated water, then cutting them to sell their fillets.
"I think entrepreneurship does not know a business," Martin said. "I could trade commodities, I could sell commercial real estate or I could publish a newspaper. There was not anything I found particularly outlandish about walking out the door and opening the world's largest indoor fishery."
The catfish farm went out of business in 1991, and the current iteration of Martin's business came two years later. Blue Ridge Aquaculture changed focus to the relatively small market of live tilapia.
According to industry group National Fisheries Institute, the average American ate 1.21 pounds of tilapia in 2009, making it the fifth most-consumed seafood in the country. About 95 per cent of that is made up of frozen fillets imported from eastern Asia (mainly China) or fresh fillets imported from Central and South America (mainly Honduras, Costa Rica and Ecuador), according to an estimate by University of Arizona environmental science professor Kevin Fitzsimmons, who researches tilapia farming.
Twenty-five per cent of the tilapia produced in the United States is grown in tanks filled with recirculated water, Mr Fitzsimmons said. Blue Ridge Aquaculture has harnessed that technology with the help of farming research from Virginia Tech.
Tilapia has recently grown in popularity because of its flaky consistency, mild taste and versatility. Most consumers of live tilapia in the US buy them out of glass tanks in ethnic grocery stores or restaurants.
Researchers helped the company breed white tilapia that would grow quickly without using hormones or antibiotics, build filters that convert ammonia from fish waste into nitrogen that can be safely released into the environment, and build a system to remove solid fish waste so it can be composted, said Tech food science professor, David Kuhn.
At the company's 90,000-square-foot plant, about 100 male and 200 female tilapia swim in pools inside a greenhouse, where every Wednesday workers collect the eggs from the females' mouths by turning them upside down into buckets. In a separate room, the eggs are hatched in small bins. The young fish swim in small pools and later are moved to one of 42 57,000-gallon tanks in a warehouse, where they spend most of their eight-month growing process until they are harvested.
The company also recently built a cobia farm in Saltville and a shrimp farm in Ridgeway, adds the Roanoke Times report. The shrimp farm, which cost more than $4 million, broke ground in 2007 using technology that involves feeding the shrimp protein from the tilapia waste. It still is in the research stage, but the company has said it could support as many as 600 local jobs if it were to reach full production.
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