Heartland Harvest Naturals LLC – Blue Springs

You’ve seen the videos.

Mike and Joan Cherner show off a few of the Asian Carp they caught after a day on the river.

Mike and Joan Cherner show off a few Asian carp caught after a day on the river.

A fishing boat put-puts into a shallow cove or quiet stream — and the air explodes with fish leaping from the water in every direction like berserk silvery missiles.

Or you’ve stood on an overpass over a slower stretch of the Mississippi or Missouri rivers and watched very large schools of very large fish not doing much of anything.

These are both Asian carp — a catchall name for several species of silver (the former), bighead (the latter) and black carp originally from Southeast Asia that escaped from captivity in Arkansas and are now running rampant in the Missouri, Mississippi and many other rivers. Asian carp can spawn up to five times a year and one female can release more than a million eggs with each spawn.

Voracious filter feeders — “They’re like HEPA filters!” says Mike Cherner, the Asian carp king of Kansas City — some of these carp consume up to 20 percent of their body weight every day in algae or plankton, driving out or starving native species. The silver carp, the ones that act like North Korean missiles, can balloon up to 100 pounds of solid muscle.

What’s it like to be whacked in the head by a leaping silver carp?

“It hurts!” says Cherner. “I’ve seen stars I don’t know how many times.” But, he says, watching them jumping is one of the true wonders of the world. “It’s just majestic.”

Mike Cherner wearing safety goggles and gloves while bottling the Fish Bliss product.

Mike Cherner, bottling Fish Bliss.

Majestic is not a term often associated with these destructive carp, much less fertilizer made from them, but that’s exactly how gardeners and farmers describe the results of using Fish Bliss, the hydrolyzed (water-based), organic, all-natural fertilizer made by Cherner’s company, Heartland Harvest Naturals LLC.

Heartland Harvest Naturals consists of Cherner, a sheet metal worker by day; his wife Joan and son Daniel. Fish Bliss is currently sold at select farm and garden retailers throughout the Kansas City area. Cherner also has a standing order for 600 gallons from one client, once he can meet their cost per unit; and expects sales to soar from the Colorado market, with its unique and highly profitable new crop and from California, which has banned traditional, phosphorous-based and other synthetic fertilizers. These fertilizers can leach nutrients from the soil and appear to be a leading cause of aquatic pollution and perhaps cancer. Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and New York also have bans on phosphorous-based fertilizers, and many other states are considering them.

Fish-based fertilizer avoids most of the unpleasant consequences of using these¬†fertilizers and doesn’t have the problems associated with manure, either. “Anything a chicken or cow eats comes out in their manure,” says Cherner, such as a wide variety of weed seed. “With a fish fertilizer, you get none of that.”

A high-energy, hands-on and intensely curious man, Cherner has remodeled houses, earned scuba and rescue diver certification, become a bow hunter so accomplished he’s been on the pro staff of BowTech bows and learned to fly. How did he become the carp king of KC?

“That was terrific fun!” he says of flying. But as he flew, he says he found himself looking for new places to hunt and fish. Then, about 12 years ago, he heard about the Asian carp invasion, found they were not protected by federal or state law and began bow-hunting carp with a few members of his archery league.

A huge carp harvest, ready to be made into Fish Bliss.

A carp harvest, ready to be made into Fish Bliss.

This is far more challenging than it sounds. Silver carp, disturbed by the vibrations of a boat’s motor, can leap in any direction, high or low, and a hunter has a split second to track their trajectory and release an arrow.

“At first, we were really bad,” Cherner admits. “We had trouble hitting them at all. But we got better and better at it and soon, we’d be shooting 300-500 pounds of Asian carp in one day.”

Initially he just dumped the fish into a hole and allowed the organic stew to break down. Next year, the Cherners decided to use that soil in their garden, with impressive results.

Cherner also recalled from grade school how Native Americans taught settlers to use fish as fertilizer and thought, “Why not turn the carp into fertilizer?” Thus was Fish Bliss born.

Which is where Jeff Samborski, business development specialist with the University of Missouri (MU) Jackson County Extension Small Business & Technology Development Center (SBTDC), comes in. The MO SBTDC, a lead program of the University of Missouri Extension Business Development Program, provides professional business analysis, business consultations, access to technology resources and educational training on a variety of topics.

bottled Fish Bliss

One gallon of bottled natural Fish Bliss, ready to help gardens grow.

Samborski found a Missouri Department of Agriculture grant to determine how best to market Fish Bliss and guided Cherner through the application process. He then helped the Cherners lay out a comprehensive marketing plan, referred them to MU agricultural researchers for field trials and other organic certification specialists to tweak their formula and raise its N-P-K level. That’s the percentage a product like this contains by volume of nitrogen (chemical symbol N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K).

“Jeff got us in touch with the right people and helped us with the presentation that lead to us winning the grant. It was seamless. He has helped immensely. He’s not just super-knowledgeable, you can tell he cares. It’s not just a job to him.”

It’s not just a job to Cherner, a passionate environmentalist, either.

“Salt based or synthetic fertilizers are just killing the ecosystem of the soil,” he says. “Eventually, you are chemically dependent and what you get is bare, depleted soil. When you go organic, you build up the ecosystem and improve the soil health.

“Personally, I would like to see people not using so many GMO plant products. The more I find out about GMO products, the more certain I am. It can take 100,000 years for a plant to evolve, and now we can change it overnight. Our bodies just can’t compute that.” Cherner freely admits he’s not a molecular chemist or microbiologist, but “so many allergies, all these cancers and health issues — I am just a layman, but you know something is wrong there.”

Joan shows off 10 gallons of ripe juicy tomatoes. Mike is happy with the progress of some greens! And faithful dog Cooper keeps a diligent eye on the cherry tomato harvest.

Left to right: Joan shows off 10 gallons of ripe juicy tomatoes; Mike is happy with the progress of some greens!; Cooper keeps a diligent eye on the cherry tomato harvest.

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