As Triple Pundit founder Nick Aster and I drive to Redkey, Indiana to visit Bell Aquaculture‘s farm and facilities, it’s hard not to let my mind wander as I stare out the window into the lush, rural countryside. Here in America’s heartland, farmers grow everything from corn and soy to apples, oats and peppermint, to feed hungry mouths across the country. But as an ever-expanding list of studies show, it will prove more and more difficult to feed a growing population with the methods we now use.
As I gaze listlessly across the vast expanse of our nation’s breadbasket, I can’t help but wonder what will become of these peaceful prairies and quiet towns as populations boom and farmers struggle to keep up. These quasi-apocalyptic musings may seem like a bit of a downer on an otherwise warm and sunny morning, but my mind is put instantly at ease upon meeting Bell’s CEO, Norman McCowan.
An unassuming man with a smooth Southern accent and warm, friendly eyes, McCowan takes the agricultural challenges of a resource constrained world not as a catastrophe, but as a challenge to create a better, stronger and more sustainable system. His company, Bell Aquaculture, is looking to redefine fish farming as an ecologically sound solution to humanity’s growing demand for seafood–and protein in general, in a larger sense.
Nick and I were itching to see some fish, but our first stop was McCowan’s own farm, a few miles away from Bell’s facilities. As McCowan walked us through the grounds–from his strawberry greenhouse and grove of local pecan, maple and oak trees, to his fish pond and prized Purple Martins–I feel almost in awe of his passion.
His face lights up with excitement as he describes the different sights, sounds and ecosystems; like Bell’s own operations, every detail of McCowan’s farm is thought out and understood. Through the gentle sound of leaves rustling in the wind, McCowan’s keen ear picks up a birdcall. “That’s a pileated woodpecker!” he remarks excitedly, a wide grin spreading across his face. “See him up in those branches there?” It’s impossible not to smile.
Although his duties at Bell surely keep him busy, McCowan still found time to construct nearly every inch of his farm himself–often with help from the Bell staff and their teenaged children, along with his own 10-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter.
The farm seems almost like an extension of Bell Aquaculture itself: McCowan gives his fish the same tailor-made feed Bell uses, and he fertilizes his crops with the company’s signature fertilizer, FishRich, made from processing plant off-cuts. He even runs experiments on the farm, using FishRich for some crops and not others–although we can attest to the fact that the FishRich crops seem to grow much better.
Observing McCowan’s connection to his land, it’s easy to see where Bell’s holistic approach to sustainability comes from. When we arrive at Bell’s fish farm, I’m not surprised to meet one engaged, passionate staff member after another–each excited to tell the story of the company’s fish.
They eagerly describe Bell’s vertically oriented system: The company operates its own hatchery and optimizes the growing environment for its fish all the way through their lifecycle. Water is filtered in a closed-loop RAS system, which recovers around 99 percent of all water used. The remainder is sent to a fully-functioning wetlands out back, where it settles through the aquifer and then back into the system.
Rather than pumping fish full of antibiotics, Bell uses mostly sodium chloride (or salt, for us non-scientific types), as well as hydrogen peroxide for injured fish. In addition to farming three species of fish–yellow perch, rainbow trout and coho salmon–the company gains as much as 20 percent of its revenue from the sale of its FishRich fertilizer. Bell plans to use residual solids from the water filtration system–mainly fish waste–to produce high quality worm castings by the end of this year.
The company will also open its own feed mill this summer, producing as much as 2.2 million pounds of plant-based fish feed every month. Since the company only uses about 2.5 million pounds of feed annually, sales of the remaining feed–made mostly from locally-farmed ingredients–is expected to comprise another 20 percent of the company’s revenue stream, if not more, predicts Becky Priebe, marketing director for Bell.
While many aquaculture ventures have tried and failed, Bell is projecting profitability this year, so there’s obviously something different about McCowan’s holistic, vertically-integrated approach.
Stay tuned for more coverage from our trip–including an inside look at Bell’s fish farm–coming soon on Triple Pundit.