By Kelly Daynard, Farm & Food Care Ontario
(Evansville) – To anyone who knew Mike Meeker as a child, there’s no surprise that he’s now a fish farmer, raising rainbow trout on a pristine lakefront property on Manitoulin Island. “If there was water anywhere, I was in it,” Meeker says of his early years. “There was never any doubt in my mind as to what I wanted to do.”
After attending the University of Wisconsin where he studied Zoology, Meeker played hockey for a few years before settling on the west side of Manitoulin Island in 1984 with his family. At that time, Meeker said that there weren’t any other fish farms on the island so his plans were met with a great deal of skepticism. But, his perseverance and enthusiasm paid off and he is now one of five growers successfully raising trout in the area.
When an average rainbow trout reaches market size, it weighs between 2.5 and three pounds. Of that, though, only about half of the fish is used for human consumption. Until a few years ago, the remaining byproducts (called offal) were sent to a landfill site and farmers were required to pay a fee to dispose of it. Meeker found this frustrating. Not only was he not being paid for the entire fish but he was facing significant costs to dispose of parts of it. “It really added insult to injury,” he recalled. “I didn’t see it as a waste but as a resource.” Utilizing the fish byproducts in a product is much more environmentally responsible that adding to the pile of waste at the local landfill sites.
Meeker’s developed a reputation in his industry as being an inventor and an entrepreneur. Like many farmers, he’s determined to keep overhead expenses low and is always seeking ways to make his farming operation more efficient.
Reflecting on the costs and perceived waste of disposing of the offal, Meeker began experimenting. He sourced and retrofitted an old cement truck and used it to churn a mixture of fish byproducts with sawdust (a byproduct of the forestry industry). He then composted the material. Over a few years, he’s perfected the three-month process, studying the optimum airflow, moisture content and temperature of the mixture. A retrofitted snow blower has also been put into use to further grind up the material and lays it in wind rows for composting.
The result is Meeker’s Magic Mix – a compost product that has a high nutrient value for lawns, flower beds and field crops. Instead of farmers paying to dispose of their offal, that same offal is now being turned into a premium, environmentally-friendly product. Today, Meeker is using about 4.5 million pounds of fish by-products from his farm and others in Northern Ontario. He produces upwards of 40 tonnes of compost each week and the product is sold to landscapers in bulk and in bagged form through retailers like Home Hardware and in past years at Costco.
The product also has a reputation for deterring wildlife – including skunks, beaver, geese, squirrel and deer – from parks, golf courses and gardens where it’s spread although Meeker says there’s no scientific proof behind the claims. “For some reason, the wildlife just don’t seem to like it and avoid areas where it’s spread.”
“People who use this product can’t believe it,” said Meeker in a dock-side interview. “They think it’s fantastic, it’s environmentally friendly and it’s making great use of one of our industry’s former byproducts” The project was recognized with a Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence in 2010.
To learn more about this farm business visit www.meekersmagicmix.com