MOUNT ENTERPRISE, Texas (AP) — Several years ago, changes in the way the poultry industry operates meant some broiler producers couldn't afford the cost of doing business.
The result of the company-mandated changes was hundreds of empty chicken houses dotting the East Texas landscape. A group of innovators have found a way to breathe new life, and a new agribusiness venture, into those empty structures.
But instead of feathers, their crop has fins.
Enter East Texas Tilapia, a relatively new enterprise, raising what's quickly becoming the most popular seafood option in restaurants and on dinner tables around the country. Farming fish, or aquaculture, isn't a new enterprise by any stretch of the imagination. But Van Vaught and his partners, Jim Reed and Don Walker, both of Shelbyville, are coming at the venture in a whole new way.
Vaught started in agribusiness with his father, Tom, running a family-owned dairy operation. When small dairy farms were disappearing in the late 1970s in favor of larger operations able to supply processors with thousands of gallons of milk a week, the Vaught dairy closed down.
But his family couldn't stay out of agriculture. It wasn't long before Vaught's brother Lance built some houses and started raising broiler chickens. A few years later, Van and another brother, Allen, built eight more houses east of Mount Enterprise.
Then came the word from the poultry company: Drop another $500,000 in your farm to make the upgrades or go out of business. Investing that much capital at that time in their lives just didn't make sense, Van Vaught said.
"He would have been an old man before he owned his own property," Reed told The Daily Sentinel of Nacogdoches (http://bit.ly/12XldLS). "And he had no contract guarantees. They could have shut him down the next month and he'd have been half-a-million dollars in debt."
That was a common experience around the area at the time. Vaught estimated about 100 other broiler growers, who were in the same boat he was, shut down rather than sink additional funds into their operations.
For a family who grew up in agriculture, no other industry would do. That's when Vaught and Reed came up with a revolutionary idea.
Reed and Walker already had a similar business venture underway in aquaponics, mating fish farming and vegetable production. They were successful on a small scale, one-person operation basis, Reed said. But Vaught had loftier ideas.
"Van and I sat down one day," Reed recalled. "Actually, we didn't sit down. We were standing at a football game.
"My daughter was in the band and his daughter was a cheerleader," he said. "We were standing out on the football field one day and we conceived of a business. A month later, we were drawing up papers. Two months later we were building."
Each of the three partners invested in the new venture, with the addition of one of Vaught's eight idle broiler houses, which would be home to the operation. They reclaimed as much of the material from the farm as possible, using metal roofing from one side of the house to enclose the first fish tank and insulation stripped from the walls to line the enclosure before fitting it with a rubber liner and filling it with water and fish, Vaught said.
"This is about as redneck as it gets," he said with a laugh, pointing out details of that first tank which is still in operation. "We were going to buy tanks, but I thought about the backyard, above-ground pools.
"We tried to utilize as much as we could from the existing chicken house," Vaught said. "Basically, the only things we purchased were the four-by-fours (to make up the superstructure of the tanks) and the rubber liner."
That first venture was mixed aquaponics and aquaculture — fish on one side and vegetables on the other — with the nutrient-rich water circulating, being filtered and oxygenated by the vegetables before returning to the tanks. But once Vaught started running the sales numbers, vegetables versus fish, it quickly became apparent which direction the business would go in the future.
And that is Vaught's strength: Knowing his way around an agribusiness and making it work, Reed said. But it's about more than work, he said.
"If it was just about hard work, every farmer in America would be successful," Reed said. "The ones who become successful are smarter, and I'm not talking about intelligence. It's the ones who work smarter. They think ahead."
And that's what Vaught did. He quickly realized fish was the way to go. But, to make a truly successful operation, the team had to have total control over the process.
And that meant building a fish hatchery, which they did by converting that first tank and building others, eventually expanding to a second chicken house on the property and installing four new, 80,000 gallon fiberglass tanks and a massive filtration system.
It's essentially an aquarium, similar in concept to what you might have in your home, but on a much larger scale, Vaught said. And proving it can be done, and be profitable in the long run, is just as important to Vaught, Reed and Walker as doing it in the first place.
"I'm not going to say we're pioneers," Vaught said. "People have built tilapia farms and succeeded and others have built them and failed. But I think we're probably the first ones to take an old chicken house and try to turn it into a tilapia farm."
Vaught wants his former colleagues in the broiler business, those other farmers who decided to step away when the companies were mandating expensive upgrades, to know about what he and his partners are doing at East Texas Tilapia. They've already developed markets for their fish, with restaurants and grocery chains in Dallas, Houston and Shreveport. Reed can also be found periodically at the Nacogdoches Farmers Market with a cooler at his side full of fresh tilapia fillets grown in good, East Texas water without chemicals or antibiotics.
Vaught, Reed and two employees spent part of the day Tuesday loading several hundred pounds of live tilapia into a truck-mounted tank with its own oxygen supply for transport to a "large grocery store chain" in Dallas. Another section of the enterprise is devoted to stock fish, a different subspecies of tilapia from what you find in the grocery store, which can be introduced into ponds or small lakes. They're very sensitive to cold so can't overwinter well, Reed said. But, while alive, they will clear away duck weed, algae and other aquatic plants to make way for the introduction of permanent species, including bass, and provide a food source.
It's not an overnight, get-rich-quick venture, Vaught and Reed said. But they want other former chicken farmers to know it can be done.
"My whole goal when we started this was not just to put my houses back in production but, if we can get a successful, working model, take it out and show some of these other guys," Vaught said. "Say, 'This is what we've done and this is how you do it.'"
There's a pretty big learning curve to this type of operation, Vaught and Reed said. They're still learning every day.
And there's an old joke among fish farmers, that you're not an aquaculturalist until you've killed off a million pounds of fish.
"We're almost aquaculturalists," Reed said. "We're working toward that."
"We're trying to avoid that, but we're on our way," Vaught agreed, laughing. "You've got to crawl before you can stand up and walk. We're still in that crawling stage."
Information from: The Daily Sentinel (TX), http://dailysentinel.com