Raising warm water fish in the cool, clear waters of Southeast Idaho may seem far-fetched until someone discovers the tilapia farming operation of Dutchboy Farms in Niter. John Lambregts, an aqua-culturist and owner of Dutchboy Farms, raises tilapia that are originally from the warm waters in Thailand. These fish are commonly believed to be the same species as the few fish in the bible that Jesus used to feed 5,000 people with five loaves bread.
Raising tilapia in the crystal clear waters in Idaho is an anomaly. The fish is considered an invasive species; they cannot survive in water below 70 degrees.
But if one could find a warm spring that runs at 85 degrees year-round, it would be a good match for the beefy fish that is growing in popularity on American dinner plates.
Sometimes referred to as aquatic chicken, they have large scales, are more meaty than trout and don’t have the fishy taste trout is known for. They also are not predators, but feed on algae and other aquatic plants.
Lambregts, who holds a master’s degree in agricultural economics from Texas A&M, also owns a couple of trout farms in the Pocatello area.
Lambregts’ Batise Springs Trout Farm in Pocatello is the largest trout farm in Southeast Idaho, with 24 raceways. There is also their hatchery at Papoose Springs.
“We do not accept eggs or fish from other trout farms, to insure you healthy, vigorous, fun fish,” he said.
In 1999, he found the Smith Creek Warm Springs and built his fish factory for tilapia just over the Franklin County line in Niter. He sells about 50 metric tons of the fish from his small operation. He also sells fingerlings to other aquaculture farms across the county.
“Selling tilapia is a cash business,” he said. They are shipped and bought live and paid for at the time they are picked up. People want to see a fish swimming around looking healthy.”
Those that buy them want them live. They take them home, clean them and cook them within minutes after they get them home, he said.
Many of Dutchboy Farms customers are of Chinese or Hispanic descent. He raises darker tilapia for the Hispanic market and lighter pink ones for the Chinese market. The two also like different sizes. The darker ones are sold smaller than the pink tilapia.
“We tried to take some to a farmer’s market, but we didn’t sell any,” the Holland born Lambregts said. “Most American’s don’t really know how to cook or eat them.”
If you eat fish tacos or fish in a Chinese restaurant most likely you are eating tilapia, he said.
Lambregts’ operations manager, Richard Ambrosek, is a graduate of University of Idaho Ag School working on a Masters’ in beef nutrition.
“It’s not too bad of a job,” Ambrosek said. “In agriculture it’s all about variety. You never do the same thing for very long before you are off doing something different.”
The Caribou County farmer also raises cattle on the family farm near Grace. Working with fish gives him a little diversion.
Ambrosek said to deliver their fish, they put them in plastic tanks and load them on top of trailer, then the tanks have oxygen pumped into them to keep the fish healthy during shipping.
Dutchboy supplies most of their fish in the Western part of the United States.
The waste produced by the fish is used to irrigate the fields downstream.
“Farmers downhill from our operation have been real happy to use our water for irrigation,” Lambregts said. “They have never seen their crops look so good.”
The fish, also found in Africa, are safe to raise close to the Bear River because if by some small chance they found a way into any of the natural waterways close by, they wouldn’t survive the cold water.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported Americans ate 475 million pounds of tilapia last year making it the most popular farmed fish in the United States.
Dutchboy Farms is studying the possibility of expanding into the bass market in the future at the same location.