Fifty-six degrees. That’s the average year-round water temperature of a natural spring in Gravois Mills, Mo. It also happens to be within the temperature sweet spot for raising trout, which explains why Troutdale Farm has been operating in some form, farming and selling fish here, in the middle of the Ozarks, for 80 years. And it's not alone. As overfishing has been elevated to the forefront of global food concerns, fish farming, also known as aquaculture, has grown along with it as a sustainable way to keep fish on our dinner tables. More and more, St. Louisans are eating seafood that was caught far closer to Pacific, Mo., than the Pacific Ocean. In doing so, they’re adding a whole new dimension to the idea of farm to table.
Troutdale Ranch opened in 1932 with a simple business model: raise and sell fish. Trout need cold, running water to thrive, meaning that you need to have either a lot of water that you can pump and chill electronically or a spring. Missouri in particular is conducive to trout farming because there are multiple tracts of land throughout the area that have natural springs. Most are owned by the state; Troutdale Ranch purchased one of the few private parcels.
The model worked for decades, but business waned at the close of the century, and in 2002 Merritt and Dennis Van Landuyt, a retired ballerina and organic chemist, respectively, purchased the business and began the long road back to prominence, aggressively marketing their product and slowly building a network of dedicated customers. Today the rebranded and renamed Troutdale Farm caters to a variety of specialty markets and top-tier restaurants throughout Missouri, including Niche, Franco and Big Sky Cafe.
“I have customers who won’t order anything but the trout,” says Troutdale Farm customer and I Fratellini owner Zoe Pidgeon. “It’s one of our biggest-selling items because the fish is always brilliant. They’re one of my favorite purveyors.”
“The trout have a rich flavor,” explains Lou Rook III, executive chef of Annie Gunn’s. “And when a harvest is ready, they can have it in your restaurant in less than 12 hours. It’s what trout should be.”
Rockbridge Rainbow Trout and Game Ranch, in Rockbridge, Mo., features trout that are raised in on-site hatcheries and then released for pursuit by fishermen. More than 60 percent of the ranch’s business stems from a St. Louis-based clientele that makes the approximately four-hour trek down I-44 in order to personally catch fish from the ground’s streams.
“Our trout are hand-fed with the best feed in the cleanest and coldest water,” says Alicia Amyx-Winrod, manager of Rockbridge. “It hasn’t come from a farm where 200,000 fish are raised in one small pond with auto-feeders.”
Aside from individuals being able to catch dinner themselves, the ranch also provides rainbow trout for area businesses such as Big Cedar Lodge in Branson and the specialty-market chain MaMa Jean’s Natural Market. It also has its own restaurant where guests can dine on rainbow trout prepared more than 20 different ways. “Once you eat it,” says Amyx-Winrod, “you’ll see there’s no comparison.”
Kelly Norman, a manager for MaMa Jean’s Natural Market, agrees. Having eaten at the ranch’s restaurant and seen firsthand the trout being line-caught in the spring-fed streams, she knew she had to bring the fish to her store shelves.
“They deliver freshly caught fish in less than 24 hours,” lauds Norman. “If I run out, I hear about it.”
If you let Dr. David Brune explain it, he’s attempting to raise multiple organisms in an ecosystem designed so that he can bring saltwater breeds of shrimp normally found in the Pacific to the Missouri marketplace. Brune holds a Ph.D. in sanitary engineering and works for the Bradford Research Farm at the University of Missouri ‒ Columbia. What he’s doing there, to put it in nondoctorate speak, is figuring out an inexpensive way to consistently raise saltwater shrimp that are normally found in the Pacific Ocean.
“We consume about 1.4 billion pounds of shrimp a year,” explains Brune. “Of that, approximately 1.2 billion pounds is farm-raised. The U.S. has been the leader in [farm-raised] technology, but as soon as it’s created, other countries take it and run with it.”
In other words, when you buy frozen shrimp at the store, you’re buying it from countries like China, Ecuador, Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam. Brune’s farm, which consists of multiple raceways of circulating water and greenhouses-cum-office-space for chemical analysis, is trying to attract everyday consumers and American aquaculturalists.
“The big issue is cost,” Brune admits about the American shrimp. “In a head-to-head cost competition against frozen shrimp on a shelf from Thailand, I can’t compete. I’ve got to produce a shrimp that’s sold at a live market. A fresh market.”
What he needs are people who are willing to pay a premium price for better taste and higher quality. But how much more will people pay? Brune is unsure. He’s proved that he can yield shrimp; the only thing left is to perfect the system so that it’s scalable and reproducible for other farmers. And he’s almost there. He plans on bringing in interested farmers for workshops as early as this fall.
Dr. Jason Knouft also holds a Ph.D. – his in biology – and is the associate director of the Center for Environmental Sciences in the Center for Sustainability at Saint Louis University, where part of his research involves understanding the factors that regulate distribution of freshwater fish. His largest concern with fish farms is the possibility of non-native species escaping into and disrupting native populations. Dams break. Floods happen. The question is less of whether a fish escapes than when.
“Look at the explosion of Asian carp,” cites Knouft. The fish were originally imported by fish farmers to clean their commercial ponds, but have since escaped into the Mississippi River and Great Lakes. They were declared an invasive species by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2007.
“It’s a complicated issue,” Knouft says. “People are making a sincere effort to provide [a solution].”
While fish farms can raise concerns, that hasn’t stopped Nathalie Pettus. The owner of Overlook Farm in Clarksville raises tilapia and is looking to expand even further into prawns and barramundi, as well as deliver her fish to St. Louis chefs while they’re still swimming in tanks. It’s all part of her plan to create a fully encompassing sustainable property.
When Pettus began researching how to make her own ethanol using corn from Missouri farmers as a fuel solution for her own farm, she found that one of the byproducts of ethanol – distiller’s grain – proved to be an excellent source of feed for fish. So in preparation for all that distiller’s grain, Pettus decided to begin raising tilapia.
“Tilapia are very easy to raise,” she explains about her choice in fish. “They’re more of a vegetarian fish, so they don’t require a meat source.”
Researching all that she could on aquaculture, Pettus built out concrete tanks that are indoors and above floodplains to ensure no chance of escape or ill effects to the local ecosystem. With everything in place, Overlook Farm received its first purchase from a hatchery, 4,000 baby tilapia, on St. Patrick’s Day this year.
“People worry about farmed fish, but it really just depends on how the process is handled,” says Pettus. “People need to explore their food sources; ask where it comes from. We’re doing it with grass-fed beef and heritage pigs. Now we need to do this with fish. Find out who’s doing it well and support them.”
Many of the concerns over fish farms aren’t as prevalent in Missouri because the farmers here take great pride in ensuring as open, comfortable and wildlike an environment as possible. And while the concerns for population pollution and waste are still evident, even Knouft admits the current benefits outweigh the negatives.
“Fish are a healthy food source whether they’re farmed or not,” says Knouft. “At the end of the day, it’s better [for you] to eat fish than a pile of bacon.”
Correction: In the portion of this story discussing Overlook Farm, it was incorrectly stated that, “…Pettus began making her own ethanol using corn from Missouri farmers…” In fact, Nathalie Pettus is currently in the planning process of this project. According to Pettus: “What I am doing is initially utilizing ethanol purchased at a nearby distillery that processes Missouri-grown corn for my flex-fuel station. Next year, I will build my own distillery which will utilize a variety of feed stocks, not just corn. The DDGs (dried distillers’ grains) from distilling with corn and other feed stocks can be used in numerous ways to enrich the soil, raise other crops and provide fish food. So, that's the plan. The fish are on site and that portion of the plan actually was accomplished earlier than originally was projected.” Feast and its editors apologize for the error.