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Valee Taylor and son, Jeremy

Valee Taylor knows what it means to swim upstream in business.

Taylor operates, along with his sister Renee Stewart and son Jeremy Taylor, one of a handful of African American-owned fish farms in the country. Located in Cedar Grove, N.C., Taylor Fish Farm is an impressive 10,000-square-foot sustainable aquaculture facility.

"We grow enough fish in an area that's equivalent to 100 acres of water," Taylor said. "It's all indoors. That way we can control the weather and climate, as well as maintain the same conditions all year around."

Taylor Fish Farms' tilapia is raised without the use of anabolic steroids, added-growth hormones or antibiotics. Unlike pond-raised fish, there are no concerns about toxic mercury levels because the fish are raised in a controlled re-circulation system and fed feed with no animal byproducts.

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Organic tilapia tank at Taylor Fish Farm

The company's organic tilapia is sold in restaurants and grocery stores throughout the Carolinas and Georgia, with plans to expand to Alabama and Tennessee. But like most minority and women-owned businesses, Taylor faces significant barriers to entering new markets, such as securing financing and learning how to responsibly grow the business.

"Being the only African American fish farmers, you don't have much support in the industry to ask questions," Taylor said. "We get some systemic advice from N.C. State [University] on how the system works. But in the real world, you need organizations like NCIMED to teach you how to maneuver, grow your company, and gain receipts over $1 million."

Teaching a Man to Fish

NCIMED has helped Taylor Fish Farms identify and maximize the prevailing currents in the industry by providing technical assistance with Minority Business Enterprise certification, building construction, exporting opportunities and market research. The organization has also connected Taylor with major distributors, retail chains and government agencies, such as the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) in Washington, D.C.

One valuable connection through NCIMED was Taylor's introduction to Greg Linford, vice president of procurement and distribution for Denny's Restaurants. Taylor credits Linford with teaching him how to apply the principles of vertical integration to his business and how to position himself to gain contracts with national grocery store chains.

"He made contacts for me who could potentially help me, people I could talk to and get information," Taylor said. "Without it, I wouldn't have been able to get past the front door. There's usually not a pathway or network for disadvantaged businesses."

Feeding the World

NCIMED also helped the company obtain Institute of Marketing certification, which certifies organic, eco-friendly, socially responsible products. Taylor Fish Farm is one of only two tilapia operations in the country to receive this distinction.

"Growing and selling our tilapia in U.S. waters cuts down on our carbon footprint," Taylor said. "Retailers don't have to go to China, Peru or Honduras to get tilapia. The consumer can go from farm to fork and know exactly what he or she's getting. They can come to our farm, meet the farmer and see the production."

In addition, biodiesel can be made from the fish waste, leather goods can be manufactured from tilapia's tough skin and the wastewater can be used for aquaponic and hydroponic operations, Taylor said.

His company's commitment to sustainable aquaculture earned the company a 90-day contract with Whole Foods, one of the nation's largest retail grocery stores.

"I see this as a chance to help micro-communities, such as mine, that are often overlooked for benefits and opportunities," Taylor said. "I'm passionate about feeding people who are hungry and giving people who do not have an advantage an opportunity to have a job or create a business that could support their families."

For more information, visit www.taylorfishfarm.com.