Taylor Fish Farm

USDA Value Added Program Helps Taylor Fish Farm Enter Larger Markets
Cooked Taylor Fish Farm tilapia
Whole roasted Taylor Fish Farm tilapia over sautéed spinach and a lemon-caper brown butter sauce.

Sustainability in a farming operation means several things. It encompasses how producers plan to continue through market changes and how they will pay for growth and increase profit. Some producers extend that to mean reducing negative and creating lasting positive impacts on surroundings.

Taylor Fish Farm Partnership Inc., located near Cedar Grove, North Carolina, attaches importance to all of those meanings, and through science and novel operational systems underscores a dedication to benefiting surrounding environment and community.  The Taylor enterprise produces 250,000 pounds of tilapia fish annually, supplying restaurants, institutions and retail outlets across 13 states.

“We have entered into some big markets now, where most companies have been around for 20 or more years,” explained Valee Taylor, 62, one of three owner shareholders of the fish farm since its beginning in 2009. It is an entirely family-run operation. Other partners are Taylor’s sister, Renee Stewart, and a brother, Dr. Jerry Taylor. A son works on the farm. While the tilapia production was added in 2009, the farm spans four generations of Taylor family ownership and includes cattle, hog, chicken and crop production.

In 2015, the Taylor Fish Farm received a three-year USDA Value Added Producer Grant (VAPG) to assist in processing and creating a market for tilapia fillets. The $250,000 award is in its third and final year and has been matched dollar for dollar by investment from the farm.

“The VAPG is helping us make an introduction into that larger volume, mainstream market,” he said. The larger tilapia suppliers fill orders with a lot of imported fish. “We’ve had to learn to play hard ball,” said Taylor, explaining that it takes three years to develop a market. It’s a long process, and it can be especially difficult for small farmers, particularly African American farmers. Without the VAPG boost, he said the farm was basically limited to 12 stores where it could rely on sales based on qualities of taste and pricing.

“We’ve had to change our model” with what has been learned, he said. The Taylor brand now focuses on high-end customers, major corporations, universities (i.e. Duke and University of North Carolina).  Taylor knows he can compete on the taste and health/safety of the fish coming from the system he uses on his farm.  Pricing has posed difficulties.

“The VAPG helped us enter the larger markets. Then there was market retaliation by the larger companies, often using imported tilapia. What began at $9.99/lb., they could sell for $6.95/lb. That hurt.” 

Taylor further explained that such large-scale pricing competition is even more difficult with live crops, like tilapia. “It’s not like socks,” where you can store them or bring out the yard when demand rises or new markets are found. “You want to get your (fish) product to the customer fresh.” Shipping costs are high as you expand. As an example, he said, it can cost $2.77/lb. just to ship 20 miles from the farm. The larger markets require extended shipping, so price cutting takes on a greater dimension.

Yet Taylor remains positive about the eventual outcome of reliance on near-total sustainability and shared responsibility of the operation and the healthier fish production model it uses. The farm’s website (https://www.taylorfishfarm.com) graphically demonstrates the process flow for the Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS) used. Fish are grown in nine indoor tanks. As water is circulated from those tanks, solids (foods and waste) are removed from the water by mechanical filtration and beneficial bacteria consume ammonia from them and convert that into nitrogen. The harmless nitrogen is released into the atmosphere. Pure oxygen is injected into the water (re-oxygenation) and carbon dioxide is removed as it re-enters tanks. Aquaculture expertise from North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service and the Department of Biological and Agriculture Engineering at North Carolina State University has played a major role in developing the aquaculture venture.

In addition to using science, the Taylor model is heavily based on broad definitions of sustainability and shared responsibility on farm and off. Tank wastewater (denitrogenated) is used to fertilize pasture land – as needed. Taylor also recalled his community in earlier years when tobacco farmers had tractors and used them to till gardens for neighbors so they could have their own gardens to grow their own foods and to share. Now, those tractors are virtually non-existent, which means fewer gardens and often less food. Taylor’s mother donated 5 acres of land to the Cedar Grove United Methodist Church for a community garden that garden feeds 187 families 32 weeks a year. (http://anathothgarden.org) And, when tilapia are runts, he said, “we sell them to local people at labor cost of 5-6 cents/lb.”

The Taylor partners and siblings have built education into their own business process. Degrees range from African American Studies and Philosophy to medicine. Continued connections and learning align with the University of North Carolina and North Caroline State University. A greater learning component would greatly strengthen the VAPG benefits, stressed Taylor. Technical assistance courses, even mandatory ones, and perhaps a certification process would help small businesses succeed as they penetrate larger markets. Availability of non-matching funding might also help. “Success is about learning more. At times, smaller businesses enter markets and we feel like we have a target on our backs.”

About USDA VAPG

VAPG funding has been offered by the USDA periodically since the early 2000s. A new round of funding is anticipated in months ahead. To be considered value added, projects must show how products are differentiated in specific ways from commodity crops. Typically, projects must also show how they may deliver greater returns to producers.

Independent producers, farmer or rancher cooperatives, agriculture producer groups and producer-owned business ventures, including non-profit organizations, may apply. In previous cycles, applicants were required to be producers of the raw commodity who will maintain ownership of that commodity through the process of creating a value added product. Grants have been available for planning projects (such as marketing and business plans and feasibility studies) and working capital projects (which might include wages or packaging supplies).

Ag Marketing Resource Center (AgMRC) Assistance

Producers and ranchers, cooperatives and other agricultural businesses can find a wide-ranging set of tools and information to help them in pursuing VAPG funding at the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center (AgMRC). On a variety of value added topics and across products, AgMRC is a rich resource for agricultural businesses, from startup to advanced growth stages.

Directories for state and federal resources, specialty crop information, legal guidance, assessment and spreadsheet tools and other types of business training are available.

September 2018