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Fish help family farm expand

Fish help family farm expand

Dave and Annette Sweeney have two sons in their early to mid-20s. Both are college graduates, and they want to eventually become part of the family farm business. Fortunately, the young men are innovative thinkers, and along with their parents, are taking a nontraditional approach to try to make that happen.

The Sweeneys grow row crops and have a purebred Angus herd on their farm near Alden in Hardin County. Jim, 25, and Joe, 23, grew up on the farm, were hard workers, and helped with all aspects of the business. The brothers — the sixth generation on the farm — were active in 4-H and FFA, and involved in many farm and commodity organizations.

“They showed horses they trained themselves, as well as heifers they raised,” notes Dave.

Even in their midteens the duo took care of feeding the livestock during a three-day blizzard, while their parents were on a rare vacation out of state.

Key Points

Two adult sons want to return to the family farm business.

Joe Sweeney develops idea of a fish farm, with help from brother Jim.

Buckeye Fish Co. will raise 240,000 Barramundi sea bass in 24 tanks.

Jim has an ag structural engineering degree and entrepreneurial studies from Iowa State University, and Joe has a degree in ag business, economics and entrepreneurial studies.

“Our parents taught us to work hard. While other kids were playing Nintendo, we were taking care of livestock and other farm chores,” says Jim, who is an engineer for Energy Panel Structures in Graettinger. He designs agriculture facilities for clients all over the Midwest. “Even though I love what I do, I still dream about coming back home to the farm.”

Dave says, “He’s free to choose his own path, but we are trying to figure out a way for him to be part of the farming operation.”

Jim would like to work out a way to combine his career with being involved in the home farm.

Joe, who lives five miles from home, is already on a path to his own career but wants to be involved in the family farm. “I’m always available to help with projects on the farm, and I plan to be a part of the farm business in the future,” he says.

His background in ag economics has given him the answer to sustain himself and be able to be a part of the farm and to help solve the problem of feeding the growing world population. “Everyone knows the world population will be around 9 billion by 2050, and that new, innovative ways of growing food are necessary.”

Innovative ideas

Dave and Annette and their sons realize the time-honored method of adding row crops or more livestock isn’t the answer to making the farming operation viable enough for the boys to come home.

So, they are taking a nontraditional approach, starting with a business Joe has developed from the ground up.

“I was intrigued by some articles I read about fish farming,” says Joe. “I learned the mecca of research on the subject was at Auburn University. I contacted them and was invited to spend some time touring fish farms and learning the various methods of production.”

Joe says he returned about a month later and volunteered “labor for lessons learned” on a number of fish farms.

“From that experience I built a business plan, including how to manage a fish farm. His parents helped him secure a loan for the project, and other farmers had confidence in him and his fish farming idea. His new business, Buckeye Fish Co., purchased a few acres from Dave and Annette on which to build the facilities. There are now five family farmers besides Joe invested in Buckeye Fish Co.

Construction has started on the facility that will resemble a large aquarium. “We are working with equipment dealers to buy an off-the-shelf system, along with the expertise to set up and run the equipment,” Joe explains.

He says there will be 24 tanks, each holding 10,000 gallons, for raising the Barramundi sea bass, which they will obtain as fingerlings and raise to 2 pounds. “It’s basically like a swine finishing unit,” he notes. The tanks are constructed at a prison in Mississippi.

Fish marketing

So, what will Buckeye Fish Co. do with the 240,000 bass the company expects to feed out each year?

“We are working with brokers and dealers in Minneapolis and Chicago, and we are confident of the market for the fish,” says Joe. “The trend toward farm-raised seafood represents a great opportunity,” says Joe. “Farm-raised seafood has surpassed beef in worldwide consumption.

“This could be equivalent to hog and chicken production in the Midwest,” he says. They expect to receive their first fish late this fall.

Joe insisted his brother, Jim, and the company he works for do the design work for the fish-feeding farm. “We’ve come up with some innovative things in the floor plan and materials to make it a nice place for the fish to live,” says Joe.

Buckeye Fish Co. could also be the avenue for Jim’s return to the family farm. Since his work involves designing agriculture buildings for Energy Panel Structures, all that’s really required is a computer.

“I love the company and want to stay with them, but I can do the work from almost anywhere,” notes Jim. He figures he might eventually be able to do that work from the farm and perhaps take over managing the family cattle business as well. He would also like to partner with Joe in designing facilities for aquaculture farms.

“We could become the go-to company for farmers interested in fish-feeding operations,” declares Jim.

For more information on Buckeye Fish Co., visit


SUCCESSION PLANNING: Eventually, Dave (left) and Annette Sweeney will turn their operation over to sons Jim (center) and Joe. In the meantime, the family is brainstorming how to work them into the current operation.


ENGINEERING AND ECONOMICS: Jim Sweeney (left) is a design engineer and is helping his brother design facilities for an aquaculture enterprise. Joe, with the economics and business background, wrote the business plan.


This article published in the September, 2014 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2014.

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