Looking to help his father, man farms bananas, tilapia in Kansas

By Tim Weideman

What began for James Sperman as a way to help manage his father’s health has now grown into a sight that inspires astonishment. 

Just off the northeast corner of Highway 24 and Flush Road, Sperman cultivates bananas, figs and raises tilapia — in Kansas. He has multiple pools and tanks of many sizes that he uses to raise the fish and a greenhouse that, in a few months, will be nearly filled to the brim with blooming banana trees.

“This was designed to completely feed my dad,” Sperman said during a recent walkthrough of his parents’ property where his aquaponics project has taken off.

Aquaponics is a method of food production that combines aquaculture — raising fish or other aquatic animals — with hydroponics, or growing plants in water.

Sperman’s dad, Jim, has type 2 diabetes. So, in 2010, Sperman began producing the high-protein foods his dad’s diet requires.

“The reason I got into all this was to keep him healthy if he couldn’t get his meds for an extended period,” he said.

Jim Sperman said his son’s work has been extremely beneficial for the family.

“It has really been a boon for us that he has been interested in doing something like this with my arthritis coming on and my diabetes over the years,” he said.

James Sperman’s semi-pit greenhouse where most of his banana and fig plants bloom is easily visible from the highway. Inside, he’s experimenting with 15 different types of banana plants to see which takes best in the Kansas climate.

He’s even planted several outside in a mini-plantation of sorts. Later this year, that’ll look like a “jungle,” Sperman said.

To his knowledge, he’s the first person in the state to attempt to grow some of the types of bananas that are in his greenhouse.

“I don’t know if anyone in Kansas has ever fruited one of these before,” he said, pointing through a small window to a Dwarf Brazilian banana tree inside the greenhouse.

Sperman also has a dug-out garden pond and multiple other tanks and pools where he raises tilapia from tiny fry – which he sells commercially – to full-grown fish.

Though James started his hatchery project on a much smaller scale – mostly for food for his family – at the end of his first year raising tilapia, he was approached by a wholesaler from Missouri.

He ended up selling the man 50,000 tilapia fry for 20 cents apiece.

“I made $10,000 out of a small corner of my garden,” Sperman said.

Seeing he was onto something, he expanded.

His pond — designed to hold 800 pounds of fish — can produce 100,000 fry per month.

Since he’s expanded, most of the fry now end up going to the wholesaler, others interested in aquaponics or to people who want to rid their farm ponds of weeds.

Sperman said his farm and hatchery is, like many other businesses, looking to grow responsibly.

Sperman said he completed all the work himself.

He has no formal background in horticulture or fish hatcheries.

“I tried to keep a couple of fish in junior high,” he recalled. “But they summarily died in a couple of weeks.”

However, the self-described “dilettante” dabbles in a bit of everything, so trying something new wasn’t uncomfortable.

“Life’s so much more interesting that way,” Sperman said.

His dad’s proud to see James’ attempt at something new succeed.

“It’s really quite pleasing for me to see him make a go of this sort of thing,” Jim Sperman said.

Sperman’s passion for what he’s doing is evident when he walks inside the greenhouse and realized that one of his other banana plants, a Dwarf Orinoco, has a new addition.

“Holy cow!” he said. “This one’s fruiting. I haven’t seen this yet. That’s a brand-new blossom just today. This one’s really special because it’s the most cold-hardy banana.”

Sperman dreams of his system expanding, so he can spread his passion to others.

The first step of that dream is to lease a larger property. He’s got his eyes on a nearby field.

Then, he’d like to help introduce his system to others so that they, too, can produce food on their own. After that, his system could catch on. That’s the goal, at least.

For now, he’s happy welcoming the visitors who sometimes stop by to see what exactly he’s doing.

Sperman said he’s probably given tours to about three dozen curious people.

“Somehow, people hear about it and they come up here from Wichita, Topeka and Kansas City, too,” he said.

Most respond with looks of “wonder, amazement,” Sperman said. “It’s a prying open of their mind to possibilities that they didn’t know,” he said. “It’s a blast blowing peoples’ minds.”

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