CHALLIS, Idaho — The owner of a local ranch and religious retreat intends to build a USDA-inspected processing facility where he plans to pack fresh tilapia, greenhouse produce and grass-fed beef.
Christopher James, whose father Robert founded the diversified holding company Raymond James Financial, intends to pack meat from his own large herd and up to 40 percent of the 28,000 cattle that graze in Custer County and the 37,000 head in Lemhi County.
James, 67, hopes some of the surrounding ranchers will buy into a cooperative to run the facility — which would be built in modules to accommodate growth, with an initial investment of more than $1 million.
This spring, James purchased another local Angus beef ranch that also contains a hot spring supporting tilapia raceways. James hopes to scale up the operation’s annual output to 1 million pounds of the warm-water fish within the next three to five years. He’ll sell much of the tilapia into the Canadian market and is negotiating with some U.S. grocers.
James, a firm believer in sustainable agricultural practices, will also raise tilapia in tanks as part of an aquaponics operation. The fish excrement will be collected and converted by bacteria into nitrates. The nutrients will then be applied through a watering system to hydroponically raised produce in a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse.
“This will be a showplace. We’ll give tours,” James said, adding the shell of the aquaponics greenhouse has already been completed.
On his farming ground, he’s utilized cover crops to build his soil. He’s devoted two pivots to growing triticale, which he’s used for intensive grazing trials. He also has a controlling interest in a Texas citrus operation, where he’s in the process of planting 155 citrus acres and plans to plant another 350 acres next year.
In April, James’ wife Debbie opened the Tea Cup Cafe & Bakery, spanning a city block of Old Town Challis.
Challis Mayor Mark Lupher said Custer County’s major employer, Thompson Creek Metals, recently laid off about 100 workers from its molybdenum mine, and James has started creating local jobs at a good time.
Lupher will run the geothermal tilapia farm for James, having operated it under the previous landowner until his lease expired a year and a half ago.
“My directive in regard to the tilapia farm is to ramp up production there considerably, so we’ll be employing several more people there,” Lupher said. “We definitely need to diversify the employment opportunities in our area.”
Lupher is also optimistic that James will make good on his meat processing plans, noting he’s “done everything he said he was going to do so far.”
“We’re a cattle ranching community from way back,” Lupher said. “We would welcome any opportunity to add value to the outputs of local ranches.”
James moved to Challis from Florida in 1987. He and his wife, both ordained Christian ministers, began building the Living Waters Ranch in 1996, starting with the Shiloh Lodge. They provide lodging and meals for individuals and groups of up to 350 people, specializing in religious retreats.