Love Thy Farmer: Dr. Jesse Chappell

Words by Jennifer Kornegay

Photos by Cary Norton

Thanks to the old euphemism for reproduction, birds and bees are frequently lumped together. But what about fish and bees? What do they have in common? They both have the interest of Dr. Jesse Chappell, and some of them are benefiting from his expert attention. As an associate professor extension specialist at Auburn University’s School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences. Chappell is working to enhance the fish-farming industry in the state—for the fish, for the farmers, and for the environment. That’s his day job. He also keeps bees in his spare time. In both pursuits, he’s passionate about using science to improve outcomes.

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At Auburn, while he’s got “professor” in his title, he’s rarely found in a classroom. Instead, as an extension specialist, he’s out in the field teaching everyday folks how to get into fish farming and how to make a good living doing it. “Most of my work focuses on increasing efficiencies to help our fish farmers be more competitive and successful,” he says.

As the aquaculture industry in Alabama grows, it’s an important endeavor. The state is currently home to about 90 commercial fish farms, primarily in the west part of the state, and most are raising catfish. Including farm employees and those in fish processing, approximately two thousand people work in the industry.

While he’s often out and about, Chappell also spends time back at the university, where he’s conducting cutting-edge research using the university’s 200-plus ponds and state-of-the-art tools. “We are pushing the envelope with production technologies, figuring out how to produce more fish in the same or smaller amount of water,” he  says. Some of the fish that his team’s efforts raise end up at campus dining. “It’s a great way to give our students and staff fresh, high-quality food,” he says.

Chappell is currently touting an emerging technology that’s being put to work in existing farm ponds and can help farmers improve their yield by 200 to 300 percent. “It involves the installation of gear called ‘raceways’ in the ponds,” he  says. These long, rectangular-shaped boxes sit in the water and have mesh covering each open end to keep the fish inside. “It allows you to take better care of the fish and makes it easier to manage their health and feed them,” he says. The raceway systems aren’t cheap, but Chappell has already seen them pay for themselves with higher output in just a few years.

Another high-tech method, aquaponics, holds fish in large (50,000 to 100,000 square feet), insulated structures and offers even more control. “This lets us produce a lot of fish in a small space. We can produce on one acre what we used to produce on a hundred acres.” It also provides better opportunity to recapture fish waste—in industry jargon, their “nutrient stream”—and put it in a marketable form for growing plants and veggies and as fertilizer for grasses, trees, and more. “It’s not been broadly adopted yet, but that’s coming. It is transformative for the industry,” he  says.

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Plus, these innovative ways to farm are more sustainable than older approaches. “They reduce the amount of water, electricity, and other energy used per pound of fish compared to traditional systems,” Chappell  says.

It’s clear Chappell has the necessary scientific know-how, but he’s just as well versed in the business side of fish farming, coming back to Auburn in 2001 (he got his Ph.D. from Auburn in the late 1970s) after 24 years in the aquaculture industry, running a fish hatchery in South Carolina that produced and sold baby fish to farms all over the world.

This background means he sometimes discourages people who want to farm fish. “It’s not just about raising the fish. I want people to think further than that and consider how and where they can sell their fish,” Chappell says. “So I provide a lot of counseling, and sometimes, I’m talking people out of getting into it. It’s just not the right fit for everyone.”

Beekeeping was initially not a great fit for Chappell; his first experience came when his dad deemed it his new hobby, whether he liked it or not. “When I was in high school, my dad let a man keep his bees on our farmland,” he  says. “When that man died, his widow didn’t know what to do with the hives, so Dad assigned their care to my brother and me. I learned pretty quickly that I had a bee allergy; a sting on my hand caused my entire arm to swell up.” However, his allergic reaction lessened over time, and he ended up enjoying his bee-tending duties.

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When he left for college, Chappell left the bees behind too, but he caught the buzz again on the other side of the globe while visiting a farm in Egypt, which hosted, and cared for thousands of beehives. “That trip got me thinking about the bees I tended to as a kid, and on the flight home, I thought, ‘I’ll get a few hives to play with,’” he  says. Making and selling a little honey sounded fun, but as soon as he started, his analytical instincts kicked in and he discovered a new mission. “Bees are getting hammered by human intervention, like pesticides and a lack of understand of which bees are harmful and which are not. I’m trying to distribute some new bee genes in this area,” he  says. “Every year, I bring in queens from different locations to broaden the genetic base here.”

With bee populations suffering from a host of issues, namely Colony Collapse Disorder and harmful pesticides, Chappell is hoping his work will counteract some of these problems. He has fifty hives that feed on different flora, including clover growing on the university’s campus, as he moves them around the city. He harvests anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of honey a year; some is given away, some is sold in a few shops around the area, and some is purchased by Auburn-area chef David Bancroft, this issue’s Guest Editor.

While the tasks of bettering the future for bees and fish keep him fascinated, it’s not really about the animals. “My real goal is to improve the lives of people in Alabama,” he  says.