By Neil Anthony Sims*
Give thanks that the rains amply fall and the sun sufficiently shines across the blessedly deep, fertile soils of America, so that the crops there grow ever profuse and abundant, and then yield up their seeds – the plants’ own progeny; their own hope for and investment in the future – that we might eat, or that we might feed the animals that we dote upon and then, in turn, eat them. ‘Tis a marvelous - nay, a miraculous thing!
But it is also much more than a miracle; it is the work of human hands. Soybeans don’t grow themselves (or at any rate, they don’t grow themselves in any usable quantity). Some honest, modest, earnest family has carried on the tradition that they probably inherited over three or four generations, of tilling the soil, fretting over the weather, and (in good years) bringin’ in the sheaves, or the pods. They rise at hours that the rest of us might politely call befuddling, to sit on a tractor or a combine harvester from first light to last, and work harder than the rest of us think is humanly possible; or harder - at least - than we think is humane.
They do make a living at it, but often barely. My Australian uncle who works the land tells a joke about the outback farmer who hit the jackpot in the lottery. When the television camera crews showed up and the interviewer asked him what he planned to do with his new-won millions, he just scratched his stubbled chin and said “Well, I guess I’ll just keep farmin’ till it’s all gone”.
So as you sit there, with your head bowed over your meal, you might then also want to whisper a word of thanks to the soybean farmers of America. You can thank them for all that they do to feed our growing world. Think on this, for example: when did you last hear of a famine that was caused by a good old natural disaster, rather than by the sadder, more cruel, but now more commonplace cause of famine: human conflict? But if you are one of those aforementioned so-fortunates that is facing a fillet of soy-fed fish on your plate, you might also want to thank America’s soybean farmers not just for their honest labors in the fields, but also for their entrepreneurial vision and their ever-enthused vigor in bringing to reality the hope and hunger that we – and the rest of the world - share for sustainable, healthful seafood.
America’s soybean farmers, through their check-off program, and their other manifold initiatives, have been indefatigable in their support for R&D to improve the diets for cultured fish, and to expand the use of their products in solving the global protein puzzle. By their doing so, we can all now move to soften our footprint on the seas by developing sustainable, scalable proteins and oils with which to reduce our reliance on fishmeal and fish oil. This is a challenge that is equally rooted in economic and ecological imperatives. Have you seen the price of fishmeal lately? We now long for a return to a price per ton that was once considered a stratospheric, El-Nino-induced blip. And anyone with an inkling of understanding of biology, ecology, or Malthusian logic knows that we cannot grow enough seafood to feed the world if we try to do it on the backs of Peruvian anchovetta, Californian sardines, and menhaden from the Gulf. The way to make this work is to connect America’s Heartlands with her blue horizons; to use agricultural sources for the amino acids and fatty acids that feed our fish.
Beyond the stuff of feedstuffs, though, America’s soybean farmers also labor stanchly to help folk grow more fish, literally all over the world. They strive to increase the access to knowledge among and about the aquaculture industry (see, for example, the videos on Pacifico Aquaculture and Regal Springs, at http://www.soyaqua.org/video). USB for years sponsored fish cage engineering research and development in China, by that unsung (or at least “too little-sung”) stalwart hero, Mike Cremer, and UNH’s engineers. Soy funding has supported Jesse Chappell’s research at Auburn University developing the in-pond raceway, which could be a game-changer for pond-culture of myriad species. The Illinois Soybean Association funded the far-flung, over-the-horizon idea of Kampachi Farms’ Velella Beta-test of the world’s first unanchored net pen. USSEC supports educational workshops and outreach for fish farmers in India, China, Southeast Asia and Latin America. And USB and USSEC have supported certification, to ensure that there are incentives for doing it right, with past funding for the Seriola Cobia dialogues, neck-deep involvement in the current ASC Feed Dialogue, and support for both BAP and ASC accreditation and labelling initiatives.
America’s soybean farmers also understand the intersection of farming and policy. Bev Paul and the American Soybean Association - the political wing of the soy party, supported solely by soy farmer voluntary contributions – stand unflinchingly, shoulder-to-shoulder with the aquaculture industry in the bloody, muddy trenches of Washington D.C. The CUSP initiative (the Coalition for U.S. Seafood Production), which aims to bring more attention and greater political clout to the issues that constrain our industry, is the result of the tireless efforts of Steve Hart, Executive Director of the Soy Aquaculture Alliance. The U.S. soy industry has pursued the prophecy of sustainably-fed seafood all over the world with an unswerving fervor and profound faith in its eventual fruition that might only elsewhere be found in some Christians’ expectation of the Second Coming: the only physical evidence of its impending occurrence is a matter of interpretation, but it has been foretold, and those with deepest faith believe most devoutly that the Age is now upon us.
Nowhere was that steadfast support more apparent than at the recent soy-industry-sponsored Aquaculture Investment Workshop in Miami. At the end of the first day, Prof. Dan Benetti (if not the father of the offshore industry, then at least a doting uncle or a convivial, more-worldly cousin) invited representatives of the various start-up farms around the Americas to join him in a panel addressing the challenges and opportunities that lie before us. There were hardly enough chairs to seat them all, as the panel participants flooded onto the stage and stretched across the front of the auditorium. There was: Eric Pedersen of Pacifico Aquaculture, who along with Rex Ito and friends is culturing white seabass and hybrid striped bass off Ensenada, in Baja Norte.
Alongside Eric sat Pablo Konietzko of Earth Ocean Farms in La Paz, who is pioneering the farming of huachinango (red snapper) and totoaba (an endangered seabass that is endemic to the Sea of Cortez).
There was Roberto Flores who, along with Luis Carlos Astiazarán of Baja Seas is culturing hiramasa (California yellowtail, or jurel) on the Pacific coast of Baja.
He was sitting next to Carlos Lara, who with Bob Miles of Martek is farming rose spotted snapper on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, and selling product in to several outlets including Costco in the U.S.
Samir Kuri of Ocean Farms, Ecuador, was also there, along with partner Santiago Mendoza and owner William Woods, grinning widely as he proudly described their recent first stocking of cobia at their farm site (Finally! After 8 years of pushing he finally has his offshore permit!) located nine miles offshore. (ASIDE: By our estimation, that may currently be the furthest offshore farm site in the world. Does any reader know of any site further offshore? If so, please let us know…).
Jon Chaiton was up there, who together with Ben Frisch, owner of Beaver Street Fisheries, is culturing Nassau grouper at Tropic Seafood in the Bahamas (another imperiled species… it’s a recurring theme, methinks).
Sergio Zimmerman was representing a Florida aquaculture investment group, developing a large-scale aquaponics/integrated aquaculture operation raising tilapia, paiche and passion fruit in Homestead, Florida.
There was Michael Bullock, my co-founder in Kampachi Farms, who runs our start-up operation growing Cabo Kampachi™ (pez fuerte, or amberjack) in La Paz.
And as it was an investment conference, we were also able to sport an aquaculture investor rep: Nick Brown, of the Shamrock Group, out of Toronto, who are actively searching for projects in the space.
The thing that was particularly striking to me was how we have grown over the last four years, since the U.S. soy industry first began sponsoring such workshops. If you had held the same colloquium at the first soy-sponsored workshop, back in 2012, then you would have had Brian O’Hanlon of Open Blue (farming cobia off the Caribbean coast of Panama) sitting up there all on his lonesome.
How much of this growth is directly due to soy industry support? OK, that’s hard to say. But how much of where we are at today, as an industry, is indirectly due to America’s soybean farmers and our shared vision? An inestimable amount. Consider the long list above of all the activities supported by USSEC, USB, and other branches of the soy industry, and then think for a moment where we would be without this support. It’s not a pretty thought. It’s not as if NOAA would step up to fill in the gap.
America’s soybean farmers are doing far, far more than building their own markets. They are building better feedstuffs for these great fish that we are growing. They are building bridges and bonds between us all. They are helping to build an aquaculture industry of which we can all be proud. And thereby they are helping to build a better planet.
And that, dear friends, is something for which we should all be most grateful. ‘Tis a most marvelous – and indeed, a nigh miraculous thing!
Neil Anthony Sims is co-Founder and CEO of Kampachi Farms, LLC, based in Kona, Hawaii, and in La Paz, Mexico. He’s also the founding President of the Ocean Stewards Institute, and sits on the Steering Committee for the Seriola-Cobia Aquaculture Dialogue and the Technical Advisory Group for the WWF-sponsored Aquaculture Stewardship Council.