It might not expect fresh tilapia to come from Owensboro, but thanks to Thomas Aquafarms, they do.
A father-son operation, Thomas Aquafarms got its start back in 2016, when Rick Thomas started thinking about what he wanted to do in retirement.
“He’s always had a green thumb,” said his son Eric Thomas, “So he wanted to have a greenhouse to raise plants and foods for our family. When he said that, I said ‘well, I want a greenhouse for my fish, so we did two greenhouses.”
At the time, Eric had planned to keep his koi fish in the greenhouse, as part of his venture with Aquatic Resource Center which builds advanced water features and koi ponds. His interest in fish was piqued early while visiting relatives with a koi pond at a very young age. Around age 10, he didn’t like the fish he was getting locally, so he began to research online and found a seller from California. He ordered more than he needed, so he sold the ones he didn’t need and quickly found a new hobby. Before long, that was a business.
Ultimately he decided the koi fish needed to be in a convenient location for sales, so the duo decided to raise food fish. Right now, they have about 8,000 Blue Nile Tilapia in all stages of life. In just a couple of weeks, they should have them for sale at the Owensboro Farmers Market, alongside the variety of plants they already have available.
The aquaponic system, Eric said, is a great way to know what’s in your food. They don’t use any types of chemicals in the tanks, and the wastewater from the tanks gets filtered and used to water the plants in the greenhouse. “We feed the fish, the fish feed the plants and the plants feed us,” he said.
Along with tilapia, the aquafarm hopes to soon have saltwater shrimp available after some renovation. And there’s still the possibility of adding trout to the list of offerings.
“We started this because my dad wanted something to do after he retired, but also we were reading everything on the internet about what is put in our food: chemicals and hormones and medicine and antibiotics,” Eric said. “It’s like ‘who can trust?’ Well, I can trust myself. I know what I’m putting in my fish so I know what I’m putting in my body.”
If you’re looking for vegetables you can feel good about, Rick said they’re currently growing heirloom tomatoes and other more common varieties, lettuce, a lot of bell peppers, jalapenos — a variety of heat levels, beets lettuce bok choy, spinach, etc.
“We use organic potting soils, no pesticides,” Rick said. “We spread ladybugs out and let them do their thing, and praying mantises, too.” Both of those creatures devour harmful insects and protect the plants, making them as close grown in the wild as you can get.
Rick said the two are currently selling their tilapia at the Farmer’s Market and really enjoy it.
“It’s a good second job,” he laughed. “It’s relaxing. Just come out to the greenhouse and put the radio on.”