Aquaculture tour shows power of the soybean checkoff

United States soy meal is finding an ever expanding market south of the border thanks to aquaculture.

This week about 50 growers, state soybean staff and United States Soybean Export Council (USSEC) employees spent the week in Villahermosa, Mexico learning about existing opportunities and future expansion of the industry.

Tim Bardole, ISA director from Rippey, feeds a pen of tilapia at the Regal Springs Tilapia farm in Mexico. 

Tim Bardole, ISA director from Rippey, feeds a pen of tilapia at the Regal Springs Tilapia farm in Mexico. 

“We’re here to help show the soybean farmers in the U.S. where their checkoff dollars are being invested, how they are being invested and ultimately where much of their soybean meal ends up,” Colby Sutter, marketing director for the global aquaculture program with USSEC, said while leading a tour at Regal Springs Tilapia. “It’s crucial to be able to see first-hand how relationships have been forged in international marketing programs where ultimately we are creating a preference and demand for U.S. soy.”

Regal Springs Tilapia is a company that specializes in 100 percent lake grown fish with farms in southern Mexico, Honduras, Brazil and Indonesia. The fish are raised in deep water lakes in large floating nets that take advantage of water currents to maintain fresh water and give the fish a more natural habitat.

According to Geraldo Martinez, production manager for Regal Springs Tilapia, the company will produce 30,000 pounds of fish out of two lakes in Mexico per year. That equates to 30 million fish weighing about one kilogram each. The secret ingredient to the success of their business is the soybean meal used in the formulated diets of the fish.

“For one kilo of fish we will need 1.95 kilos of feed,” Martinez said. “So if you are talking 30,000 tons of fish you will need just short of 60,000 tons of feed in a year.”

Martinez said that about 25 to 30 percent of the feed ration was made using soy meal. He sights free trade agreements with the U.S. as an incentive in buying soy grown and crushed in America.

The company exports 75 percent of their fish to customers outside of Mexico. Of that, 95 percent of the fish are exported to the U.S. and the other five percent go to European markets. Costco is one of the major retailers in the U.S. that sells the tilapia.

April Hemmes and Tim Bardole, both directors for the Iowa Soybean Association, attended the aquaculture educational opportunity and were impressed with how U.S. soy meal is being used.

“It’s an excellent opportunity for me as a soy producer in the United States,” Bardole said. “It’s a win, win. There’s a growing market out there for fish and we grow soybeans. We can help supply the soybeans and the some of the expertise to get feeds just right. And to see that back on the shelves in the U.S. shows that the soybean checkoff has done great things for the U.S. farmer and the public.”

Hemmes agreed with Bardole and found the tour of the aquaculture facility important with her new roles in the soybean community. She said that as a new USB director and a new ISA director it was important to see companies like Regal Springs to learn how the checkoff is helping to open new markets.

“To hear that there are ten percent increases each year in some of these countries producing aquaculture is huge and a great potential for soybeans,” Hemmes said. “I see it (aquaculture) as a very important market and a way that we can increase exports and uses for soybeans in a neighboring country.”

She went on to say that seeing the fish pens, hatchery and packaging facility gave her an appreciation of the detail Regal Springs uses to produce high-quality tilapia for their customers.

“What was amazing was to see the tiny fish eggs hatching before our eyes and talking with a feed expert about how precise the feed has to be,” Hemmes said.  You see these little fish the size of a pinhead, and you realize that they have to get everything they need in one little bite and how precise that needs to be for them to grow and survive.”