Small and Alternative Enterprise - Feature Farmer
Vernon Hiebert - The Tank, - Escambia County - Florida
Vernon Hiebert has been a catfish producer in Escambia County for more than 15 years, but after several years of depressed prices and increasing production costs, he decided that he needed to do something drastically different if he wanted to keep his enterprise afloat. The prices he was getting for his live fish at the catfish processing plants were not keeping pace with his costs, but the demand for catfish was increasing. He decided to direct market his product locally to individuals and eventually stores and restaurants by building, The Tank. The Tank is a 32-foot wide indoor pool that can hold up to 20,000 catfish at a time. The Tank , Hiebert says, offers the freshest tasting catfish anywhere—none of that musky flavor that makes catfish taste “off.”
He seines fish from one of his production ponds each Monday and brings 800–1200 lbs of live fish into the Tank. The water in the tank is recycled; it goes through a three-stage filter system ensures the freshest water. The fish have three days to purge themselves in the clean water, thereby removing impurities that might cause off-flavor. The round indoor tank uses a system of fences to contain fish to a certain part of the pool, or move them toward an electric “elevator” that lifts them out of the water. Shoppers can take the fish home whole or have them dressed, or cleaned from Thursday through Sunday. He has standing orders from one high end grocery store in Pensacola and several seafood restaurants that are happy to offer a local freshwater fish choice on their menus.
Vernon still markets a portion of his annual fish crop to fish processing plants, but his business with The Tank in the past three years has soared. By skipping the catfish processing plant, which essentially serves as a middleman between the farmers and grocery stores, Hiebert is able to make a bigger profit. For one year, he marketed his business on a local TV cable show, and he said that helped to establish his name. He has also been featured in the Florida Farm Bureau FloridAgriculture magazine, on Northescambia.com, in the Pensacola-based 850 Business Magazine, and even internationally on a Canadian TV show, Pitchin’ In. Additionally, he is listed on the Naturally EscaRosa website and brochure—his business has consistently had some of the highest hits for this website. He is proud to say that “word of mouth is the best advertisement” for his niche market.
Vernon is a huge supporter of Extension. During our 2010 Farm Tour, he hosted 120 visitors to The Tank and offered each person samples of his fish prepared by frying and by grilling. Before the stop, several people said that they were interested in learning more about catfish product but not in eating any of the samples because he or she didn’t like catfish. Most of the naysayers changed their tune once they were coaxed into trying the fish by Vernon himself. He reported that some of the more reluctant taste testers asked for recipes and business cards so they could return and buy his fish.
His innovative business has been instrumental in helping Extension with a major part of our clientele: local consumers. Vernon’s operation is in the heart of Walnut Hill—the center of Escambia County agriculture. His business draws people to the north part of our county where people can see local agriculture and purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables. Local agritourism has great potential in an area like Escambia County that has a large local and tourist population, and The Tank is a great way to get people out of the city and into the areas where farmers can sell directly to the consumers. Agriculture awareness is a big part of the agriculture extension agent’s job in this county, and Vernon does a fantastic job of promoting his business and other local farmer’s products.
Our catfish industry is down to three producers, one of which sells only to processing plants, one who markets to plants and has a fee fishing operation, and the last being Vernon Hiebert. Unfortunately, the catfish industry reached its heyday in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but Vernon seems to have weathered the storm and will continue to be a producers. Within the community, Vernon is a strong advocate for locally produced food items- not just his catfish. More than once I have heard him suggest that they go and pick up some sweet corn, watermelon, butterbeans, etc, just down the road. He encourages people to grow their own food, be self-sufficient, and know more about food production. He has expressed his sorrow concerning other producers getting out of the business because he knows that Florida catfish producers can and did grow a great product.
On the whole, the catfish industry is environmentally friendly. All of the water stays on site. Very rarely does the water escape a pond, but if it does, it discharges onto grassed areas where it can soak into the ground. Vernon is nowhere near a water body and does not discharge effluent into any streams. The offal from his processing is picked up by various folks who use the materials for feeding to other fish/animals, composting into fertilizer, and other things. There is very little waste.
In closing, Vernon Hiebert has helped to keep an industry from dying. His innovative design, business plan, and operation of The Tank keeps people returning to spend their money in rural Escambia County. His business isn’t just profitable for him—it brings money to many other businesses in an economically challenged part of our county. Visitors leave with more than just fish—they know more about the local food industry and hopefully an appreciation of food production. His fish farm promotes community development, and he does it all with a smile because he wants everyone to love agriculture as much as he does.
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