|Fishing for exotics|
|Wednesday, April 11, 2012|
By KEN BECK
Down a country lane between Lebanon and Mt. Juliet, inside a converted three-car garage, might be the last place in the Southeast one would expect to discover a fish farm with more than 1,200 rare African exotic fish.
Rift Valley Exotics is the culmination of Jon Carman’s fascination with colorful finny creatures that began as a youth.“I’ve had a passion for fish my entire life. I tried a few times when I was younger and that didn’t really succeed,” said Carman, 33, who works in construction management for Gresham, Smith & Partners. “When my son Jaden was born in 2001, I got my first little tank. It expanded to two and then I got my third one going.
“I went with African cichlids because they have the color of saltwater fish, but they are easier to keep and more economical. These are all freshwater fishes,” he said of his 100-plus variances of 50 to 60 different species, which often are exactly alike but for their coloring, swimming to and fro in 160 tanks.
These fish originated in the Rift Lakes of Africa, two freshwater bodies of water that stretch as wide as the state of Tennessee. Jon’s fish from Lake Tanganyika bear such names as frontosa, tropheus, shellies (dwarf cichlids that live in shells), calvus and daffodils, while his Lake Malawi fish go by the names of peacocks, red empress, yellow labs, red zebra, electric blue haps and afras.
“Four years ago, I set up at my house until there were 25 tanks in my garage. Basically, I saw an opportunity in the area to distribute African cichlids based on the fact that a lot of the rarer types weren’t available. And the first business I set up, Music City Cichlids, was mostly for locals.”
Carman soon found himself swamped with orders from exotic fish fanatics across the nation as well as pet stores wanting him to supply their needs. He quickly saw his house was too small, perhaps comparable to living in a fish bowl. That’s when he talked to his father Jimmy, who had a perfectly big garage.
“When he first brought this idea to me, I’m like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, but I always wanted to go into business with my children,’ said Jimmy, 59, who retired in 2008 after 35 years of working for Hudson Yards, a pre-media company. “This has been a blast and a blessing.”
The son and father combo remodeled the garage with Jon engineering an intricate system that includes an automatic water change so that the water constantly circulates and maintains an even temperature.
“He came up with this design, and I thought, ‘Wow! pretty cool,’ so mostly, what we have to do is wipe down the tanks every so often,” Jimmy said.
“So we can concentrate on growing and selling the fish,” Jon said. “We went more of the breeding farm route rather than retail.”
The exotic fish farm opened January 2011. About half of their customers drive to their business, while the rest order by Internet and have their fish shipped to their homes.
“People make three-to-four-hour drives here. They will pick up a fish, spend an hour in here and then drive back four hours,” Jon said, noting that customers come from Knoxville and Memphis as well as such states as Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky, Georgia and Michigan.
“And the main reason is that there are not many of these around. The local shops carry cookie-cutter fish,” Jon added. He also holds a degree in advertising at Middle Tennessee State University.
“We occasionally get wild fish or new breeders, and then we will breed, breed, breed and then sell them,” Jon said about his wild and farm-raised fish which are shipped to him from fish farms in Florida.
“Our main customers are other hobbyists into the African cichlids or pet stores that want a service for more varieties,” Jimmy said.
The first tank inside the door of the building formerly known as Jimmy’s garage is a 350-gallon aquarium that runs 11 feet long, 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep. Jon uses it as a display tank to show customers what certain species of small fish will turn into.
The current inhabitants are 30 male haps and peacocks from Lake Malawi ranging in size from 4 inches to a foot long. In the bottom of the tank are big bleached rocks known as Texas holey rock because they are filled with holes.
“Jon did this because he wanted to be the very best that he could be at one thing, but he also educates and spends hours talking to people about the fish: what they should buy, what to do with them if they are sick. He’s become pretty much an expert in the business,” Jimmy said.
“I never had a passion for fish; however, as I have worked with them, I’ve become attached. They do have some sort of personalities, and they do follow you from one end of the tank to the other. They obviously become attracted to you, you’re their meal ticket. (Jimmy handles most of the feeding, giving the fish algae-based, food-like veggie flakes.)
“I enjoy watching them mature. The dominant male turns more colorful as he matures. There are little things you learn and it’s pretty amazing to watch nature at work,” Jimmy added.
Among some of the fascinating fish are those which take refuge in small shells in the blink of an eye when they feel threatened and mother fish which carry their live babies in their mouths to protect them.
The fish fetch prices ranging from $5 apiece to $250 for a wild frontosa.
“The reason they cost so much is because they’re deepwater fish,” Jon said. “A dive team goes down with a cage 40 to 50 meters and has to slowly raise them up for several days so their swim bladders won’t burst.”
Jimmy has other business plans for his youngest son Jordan, a biology major at Tennessee Tech, that connects to the fish farm.
“Jon, Jordan and I are planning stage two and doing a lot of research into a growing process called aquaponics. It is about growing food in an organic manner by using the fish to fertilize the plants. The plants are part of the filtering process. Basically, the waste from the fish creates nitrate, and the plants take it out of the water, and it’s clean water again,” Jimmy said.
“Our other vision is to have these fields (behind their yard) full of greenhouses," Jon said. “The water from the fish house will run into ponds and water from the ponds will pump up to a system of growing trays in the greenhouses that will hold cilantros and lettuce.”
This summer, the trio plans to visit some aquaponic farms in Hawaii. But for today, it's about breeding exotic fish and teaching those interested how to tend for them.
“My biggest challenge is getting potential customers to believe they can raise these fish successfully. I can give someone without any experience enough knowledge to set up a colorful, healthy tank in less than a couple hours.
“So far, it has gone beyond my expectations. I’ve been totally amazed by the people who come here. It just grows every month. People who come here absolutely have a passion,” said fish farmer Jon, who’s crazy about his colorful African aqua babies.