Axtell dives into local seafood
Thermopolis – Darcy Axtell was raised on a cattle ranch in Thermopolis, but after leaving the area for several years, she returned to Thermopolis four years ago with an interest in local, sustainable agriculture.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” Axtell says. “When I came back to Thermopolis, it dawned on me that I could use the hot springs as a heat source.”
She continues, “I’ve always been interested in sustainable agriculture and growing vegetables year-round.”
Axtell met a couple who owns property that has hot springs on it, and she says, “They agreed to let me try to raise tilapia and have a year-round hoop house on their place.”
A quick start
Axtell’s business, Hot Springs Local Products, started last winter when they built a hoop house that utilizes heat transfer from the hot springs to maintain a consistent temperature. The hoop house contains growing beds for lettuce and winter vegetables, as well as fish tanks where Axtell raises tilapia and prawns.
“Right now, we have a large tank where both the tilapia and prawns are. We separate them inside the tank with barriers,” she says. “The water from the tank pumps through growing beds for lettuce and winter vegetables.”
Selling fresh fish
Axtell grows the tilapia and prawns so they are big enough to consume and then she sells them to the grocery store and local restaurants in Thermopolis.
“We pump the water out of the fish tank and net the tilapia and prawns,” she explains. “I net out the number that was ordered, put them on ice and delivery them fresh.”
Currently, she delivers about once a month, but Axtell is working to develop her breeding program to deliver every two weeks.
“Tilapia are prolific breeders, and we are working to get them separated and have fish available every two weeks,” Axtell describes. “Prawns are prolific, as well, and we think we can deliver those every two weeks.”
Restaurants consistently seek the prawns that Axtell raises.
She adds, “I can do individual sales, and I’ve been selling the lettuce to the organic foods store in town.”
Not an easy venture
Because both tilapia and prawns are temperature sensitive, warm water species, Axtell notes that it is important to keep water temperatures the same, which can be a challenge.
“We have to be diligent about keeping the water warm,” Axtell says. “It takes a lot of tenacity in Wyoming in the winter. It also takes patience, and sometimes I have to start over.”
If the water temperatures dip too much during a cold snap, it can kill the prawns and tilapia, meaning she has to start from scratch.
“This is a new heat source, and we’re trying it out,” she says. “Last winter was our first winter, so we didn’t really know how well it would work, but it works well.”
Axtell notes that she also has to be appropriately licensed so she can sell greens to the grocery store and raise fish.
“I have to have a food license to do this, and I get checked up on once a month or so, especially when we are growing lettuce,” she explains.
Raising fish and prawns is a little more complicated, and she says it took a while to get all the approval to raise tilapia.
“I had to check with Wyoming Game and Fish and the state of Wyoming to make sure I could have live tilapia in the greenhouse,” Axtell says. “It ended up being no problem, but I have to have the license.”
As a beginner in the business, Axtell says that word-of-mouth has provided more than enough of a market for her, and she has worked with people in the community to spread the word.
“I want to see how well the system works before I market too much,” she explains. “I have a group of people I work with here in the community, and they have spread the word. I’m also getting things ready for this winter so I’m prepared.”
Community support in the endeavor has been vital, Axtell says, commenting, “The community has been awesome in terms of buying my lettuce and tilapia.”
For others interested in starting a local foods business, Axtell advises them to start small.
“I thought what I started was small, but it was a lot bigger than I had realized,” she says. “Start small, then network and grow.”
Axtell continues, “It’s a lot of work, but that’s all right. We just have to keep at it.”
With one winter under her belt and another coming, Axtell says she is excited about what the future holds for her business.
“I’m pretty positive about the future of my business,” she says. “There has been really great feedback on the fish, and people love to have fresh lettuce throughout the year – especially in the winter.”
“I think this is pretty promising,” Axtell adds. “I’m positive about the future.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at email@example.com.