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Aquaculture at Kentucky State University

One of the biggest challenges in modern food science is increasing production sustainably for a growing population. Kentucky State University’s aquaculture program is at the forefront of this effort.

“The division of aquaculture at Kentucky State began in the early 80s,” says Jim Tidwell, Ph.D., Chair of the Division of Aquaculture at KSU. He adds that the program at KSU is the only one of its kind in Kentucky, and one of few aquaculture programs in the region. “We’re a unique resource for Kentucky farmers and for the whole region. We do a lot of international work as well. Aquaculture is fish farming, shrimp farming,” Tidwell explains. “We go from the egg to the plate.”

Research at KSU examines all aspects of seafood production, including breeding and raising aquatic species. A big focus is on optimizing nutrition using some innovative ideas.
“We do a lot of work on alternative feed ingredients,” says Tidwell. “We’ve done a lot of work on distillers’ grains. We’ve got seven distilleries right here around Frankfort, so [we look at] how we can use those byproducts to now become part of a fish feed that’s an efficient use of those resources.”

Janelle Hager is a research associate in aquaponics. She showed Kentucky Life an aquaponics system that grows tilapia alongside vegetables in a greenhouse system.

“It’s a small, commercial-sized system,” Hager explains. “We have four fish tanks that we’re growing tilapia in. [The fish food] is really the driving force of the whole system. It produces the nutrients for our fish and our plants in the system. They eat it, then we remove their solid waste via clarifiers. We have another series of filtration systems that remove all of our fine solids from the system and then the water moves down into our plant beds.”

The plants are primarily leafy green vegetables like lettuce and kale. Through the aquaponic system, the roots of the plants have constant access to the nutrient-rich water that comes from the tilapia production. Hager says that a lettuce crop grown though this system matures in about two to three weeks, a week faster than a traditional soil-based model.

At KSU’s aquaculture technologies building, researchers are using technology to produce saltwater seafood in a landlocked state.

“Because we reuse the water, we use filters to clean the water,” explains Andrew Ray, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Division of Aquaculture. “What that allows us to do in this case is add salt to the water—sea salt—and grow marine shrimp right here in Kentucky. This species grows exceptionally fast and does really well at high densities. It’s exceptionally disease-resistant as well. By producing fresh, high-quality shrimp where we know the source of the shrimp, we know they’re antibiotic free, they’re hormone-free, they’re all-natural, we can deliver these shrimp right to Kentucky consumers.”

“In agriculture we talk about a really good producer as a green thumb,” says Tidwell. “In our area, we’d say a really good producer has a slimy thumb. This is the fastest growing food producing enterprise in the world. It’s the only area where the human being has remained at the hunter gatherer stage and we’re only just now turning into farmers.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2305, which originally aired on November 4, 2017. Watch the full episode.