Title: 1996 Ag-Environmental: EkkWill Waterlife Resources
Type: Agricultural-Leadership Award
Tim Hennessey: We're the largest tropical fish producer in the world. We farm four locations, about 375 acres altogether, over 1,500 ponds. We ship over 6 million fish a month.
Tropical fish have become the second most popular hobby next to photography. 95 percent of the tropical fish grown in the United States are grown in Florida. Shipment of these fish and aquatic plants from Florida totaled over $61 million in 1995, more than double the shipments of just five years earlier.
Headquartered in Gibsonton, Florida, EkkWill Waterlife Resources is home to 125 employees. The first Tropical fish farmers to breed over forty new varieties of exotic fish in America, EkkWill raises more a thousand aquatic species, generating annual sales in the millions.
Seeing Tim, Sherry and Mike Hennessey now, it's difficult to imagine their humble beginnings.
Tim Hennessey: Sherry and I were living in the parking lot up by the airport at the warehouse with our son and dog. Our joint income was like $2,340 for both of us. And we were living in a borrowed motor home. So times were pretty austere. We literally started this business with five dollar because that’s what Sherry had in her purse to start a bank account.
With ingenuity and foresight, the Hennesseys established EkkWill, turning a small farm into a state-of-the-art operation, acclaimed for its production, resource conservation, and water reuse techniques.
Recognizing that water conservation would become a key issue in a booming West Central Florida, the company to the lead by initiating the development of water management systems before they were mandated. As a result, EkkWill’s facilities and methods have been studied by state and national regulatory agencies, and embraced as Best Management Practices for use in rural development.
Tim Hennessey: You always have to be moving forward and learning and saying ‘Why am I doing this? Is this the best way things should be done?’ And then you have structure things and organize things in such a way that it comes to be.
Mike Hennessey: In order for our business to grow, water is the restrictive resource. It's not land, it's not labor, it's not capital; it's water. So we developed a whole series of water conservation measures.
One of these water-saving measures is the re-use of large volumes of water from the fish ponds. After the fish have been harvested, the pond is drained, sediments are washed from it, and lime is spread over the dirt bottom to ready it for the next crop. In order to drain, the pond water is pumped into a nearby retention ditch. The long, elevated ditch acts as a natural filter by allowing sediments to settle. Gradually, the water level in the ditch lowers as the ponds fill back up through seepage. The water is lost from the system, it is not from discharge.
Tim Hennessey: The most water we lose is through evaporated losses in the field, and we haven’t figured a way to eliminate that; we haven't figured out how to keep water from evaporating.
With a background in Ocean Engineering and Business Management, Tim applied his experience to develop indoor water reuse systems as well.
Tim Hennessey: We've introduced a lot of recirculating technology where we bring the water back to basins; we filter it with a biological filtration which involves specialized bacteria. And then it's also mechanically filtered like a swimming pool, then it's sterilized, and then it's returned back to the system.
More than 1.5 million gallons of water a day are recovered, cleaned and redistributed with these special systems.
Effluent from the indoor systems is discharged into the field retention ditches and contributes to production pond water. EkkWill reuses water in quantities of more than five times the amount it is permitted to withdraw from wells -- water savings that far exceed regulatory expectations.
And while innovative management is a key to the operation’s success, as with any other farming venture, Mother Nature plays a pivotal role.
Tim Hennessey: We’re exposed to the weather, we have seasonal changes; we’re dealing with cold-blooded animals. I mean we put out a crop, we breed everyday, we harvest everyday, we ship, we package; it’s definitely farming.
Attention to quality and careful handling is paramount at EkkWill. At no time during harvesting -from the pond, to the truck, to the vat room - is the water's temperature allowed to change by more than 2 degrees. Temperature constancy minimizes stress and insures a healthy fish ready for market.
Tim Hennessey: Everything has to be perfect. Each one is going to end up in somebody's aquarium and be his pet.
Quality control and customer satisfaction are a must for any successful business. Making sure that customers get what they want is one of Sherry Hennessey's responsibilities.
Sherry Hennessey: Part of what I do is in the evenings I'll go over with the clipboard and whether we have a small day that’s three hundred boxes, or a big day that's 2,300 boxes of fish, I personally go through and check off every single tank of fish. We’ll bend over backward, we’ll do whatever we have to do to make those guys happy, and it really does make a difference.
Tropical fish are the largest single air freight item out of Florida. The sheer volume of shipments, coupled with the critical need to quickly transport fragile living creatures presents a logistics challenge.
Mike Hennessey: We're talking about maybe 2,000 to 2,500 boxes a day have to go everywhere, virtually everywhere in the country and throughout the world without a flaw.
Ekkwill has developed software for a coding system to track and identify each fish for each order. In addition the company devised computerized order entry, vendor ordering, receiving, shipping, inventory controls and scheduling programs.
Mike Hennessey: Developing the production programs was very, very important. The automation has allowed us to grow; it’s allowed us to be productive.
In the hatchery, spectacular new varieties are being created using the latest techniques in genetics, hybridization, artificial insemination and selective breeding. Fish that have never been commercially bred in captivity are being spawned in EkkWill's labs. This kind of accomplishment can have far reaching effects.
Sherry Hennessey: One thing that we always try to do and we've been very successful in doing and that we have good reputation for doing is being the first guys on the block to raise a new fish. If it’s the new fish on the block, they’ve got to come to us to get it.
Mike Hennessey: A lot of what we do in terms of the big picture is we see what we have to import, and we develop production projects whereby we start analyzing supply and profitability issues, and instead of importing that fish from Nigeria next year, we might breed it.
It is company policy to donate fish and consultation services to many universities and research institutes. EkkWill's particular genetic populations have become standard laboratory test animals, the "white mice" of the 90s. Frequent collaboration and donations continue with NASA, as well as various departments within the Universities of California, Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Duke and others. EkkWill also advises many Aquariums and hobby groups.
Despite the continual fast pace of business, EkkWill makes time for community involvement. EkkWill supports education, the arts and numerous youth programs.
Tim Hennessey: What’s good for the area is good for us and whatever we can do to nurture that is good for the community.
The Hennessey's enthusiasm about the future is evident.
Mike Hennessey: We think there’s continued opportunity in the ornamental fish business; we think there’s opportunity in aquiculture in general. Food fish culture still holds great promise; seafood consumption is still on the rise. And the only hope for long range viability of seafood as a commodity is by more and more farming. So I think potential is there – great potential is there.
Whether the Hennessey continue in ornamentals, or shift to food production, one thing is certain, they will continue to farm.
Sherry Hennessey: This is a lifestyle for us; here you've got your dogs, you've got your kids. When it's night and you look over those ponds and it's just a beautiful place to be. We would be able to do many things, but I don't think we would be as happy as doing what we're doing.
Tim Hennessey: There’s so many opportunities, what we see as all the stuff that we have ahead of us to do. We’ve got an intellectual challenge, we have it financially rewarding if everything goes right. And it has all of the elements that are pleasing for agriculture and a family business. What more could you want?