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Growing this fish in big tanks is a big challenge!

By Marcia Wood

Agricultural Research Service

ARS agricultural engineer Timothy Pfeiffer (left) and ARS technician Todd Lenger observe growth of Florida pompano and adjust dissolved oxygen inflow in a multiple-tank hatchery system. (Photo by Peggy Greb.)

Fish nutritionist Marty Riche feeds juvenile Florida pompano during studies to determine appropriate feeds and feeding-management practices for profitable inland production of saltwater fish. (Courtesy photo.)

ARS agricultural engineer Timothy Pfeiffer (left) and ARS technician Todd Lenger observe growth of Florida pompano and adjust dissolved oxygen inflow in a multiple-tank hatchery system. (Courtesy photo.)

Fishery biologist Charles Weirich uses image analysis to determine the best size of live prey, such as this brine shrimp (left), for fish larvae to eat. (Photo by Charles Weirich.)

Have you ever heard of Florida pompano (pronounced “POM-puh-no”)? It’s a flat, silvery fish and it is very delicious! In fact, people who know a lot about fish say that Florida pompano is one of the best-tasting kinds of fish in the world. Maybe that’s one reason why it costs so much to buy pompano at the fish market or at a restaurant.

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists in Florida are discovering many new and important secrets about this tasty fish. It lives in the warm waters off the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Why are the scientists studying pompano?

Because they want fish farmers to be able to grow Florida pompano in big tanks, somewhat the same way that trout and catfish are grown in big outdoor ponds.

These pompano fish farms would be environmentally friendly. For example, the water that the fish would live in would be cleaned in filters and reused as many times as possible, instead of just being dumped into the ocean after it is used only once.

Raising pompano in big tanks inland, hundreds of miles from the sea, could help everyone be sure there will always be lots of wild pompano in the sea. People could buy and eat the pompano from the fish farm instead of buying pompano caught from the sea.

Sometimes, if a fish is too popular, a problem called “overfishing” can happen. The fish could become harder and harder to find in the ocean. The fish might even disappear completely.

The trouble with pompano is that no one knows very much about how to grow big, healthy pompano in big tanks at a fish farm.

That’s why scientists like Chuck Weirich, formerly with the ARS, are trying to learn as much as they can about pompano.

In one study, Weirich worked with 50,000 baby pompano. That’s a lot of little fish! He wanted to find out what these little fish eat so that they could be fed correctly as they grow in the big tanks.

In their earliest days of life, baby pompano are almost transparent. That means they are almost invisible.

So how do you see what kind of things the baby fish can or can’t catch and swallow if you can’t even see the little fish, even if you squint your eyes very hard?

For example, if you put tasty brine shrimp in the tank for the baby pompano to eat, what size would be just right for the little pompano to be able to catch and swallow?

At first, Weirich didn’t know what to do to solve this problem. Then he had an idea. He used cameras to take digital photos of the baby pompano. Then, he used a computer to analyze the photos. The computer could see what Weirich could not see. For example, the computer could help him measure the size of the tiny mouths of the tiny fish. That way, he could figure out what sizes of brine shrimp the baby pompano were able to eat as they grew and grew in the big tanks.

Weirich is a fish biologist. He worked with a team of ARS scientists who are stationed at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, Florida.

Weirich is happy that his idea of using a camera and a computer solved the problem of not being able to see and measure the baby pompano. He did a lot of thinking to come up with this solution. If you like thinking hard and not giving up when you have a tough problem to solve, maybe you’ll want to be a scientist, too.

Now the scientists are trying to discover other things about pompano. Then they will share what they know with fish farmers.

Maybe someday soon it will be easy to buy and eat pompano raised at fish farms, instead of pompano fished from the sea. When that happens, you may remember this story about these scientists who helped find out how to raise delicious pompano in a new, Earth-friendly way.

Pass those peas--or put them in the gas tank!

By Jan Suszkiw

Agricultural Research Service

Microbiologist Nancy Nichols and biochemical engineer Bruce Dien add yeast to a bioreactor to begin ethanol fermentation. (Photo by Scott Bauer.)

“Eat those peas!” How many times have you heard that from your parents?

Well, one day, peas might be more than just those little wrinkled green things staring up at you from your plate. That’s because scientists with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Peoria, Illinois, have figured out how to turn peas into fuel.

That’s right, fuel—the kind that goes into cars, trucks and other vehicles.

Sound crazy? It’s not, really. Have you heard of ethanol (say “ETH-uh-nol”)? It’s a fuel made from sugars naturally found in cornstarch—the same, silky smooth powder used to thicken gravy and soups.

Peas also contain starch. But until 2005, no one had figured out how to make fuel out of the sugars in pea starch. That year, some Illinois farmers asked ARS scientists Nancy Nichols and Bruce Dien to give it a try. They both had learned a lot about turning cornstarch into ethanol as part of their studies at ARS’s National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria.

Most of the peas that U.S. farmers grow are sold as a protein-packed feed for farm animals. The rest are sold for people to eat as dried, split peas in soups, salads and other foods. The Illinois farmers hoped to earn more money from their peas, though, by turning the crop’s starch into ethanol.

Taking peas apart

In studies at Peoria, Nichols and Dien experimented with different methods until they found one that worked best. First, they ground hard, dried peas into a flour. Then, they separated the starch from protein. Next, they broke the starch down into sugars. Using substances called enzymes (say “EN-zimes”) or special yeasts, the scientists fermented the sugars. This caused them to produce carbon dioxide (the same gas that makes sodas bubbly) and alcohol, or ethanol.

What’s so special about ethanol, anyway? Why don’t we just use gasoline? One reason is that when ethanol burns, it releases fewer chemicals that can pollute the air. Another reason is that gasoline comes from petroleum (say “peh-TROL-ee-um”), an oily liquid that is pumped out of the ground. Once the petroleum is gone, there’s no replacing it.

But corn, peas and other starch-producing crops are easily replaced; farmers need only reseed them from year to year.

Peas produce less ethanol than corn--about 2 gallons (two milk jugs) instead of nearly 3. But pea starch is just as easy to ferment. Besides earning a little more cash from their pea crop to make ethanol, farmers could also sell the leftover protein.

Don’t forget, though, peas are good for you. So next time somebody passes them around at dinnertime, go ahead and give them a try.

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