Rob Bullock may only be 29 years old, but he's already a successful fish farmer, businessman and leader.
Bullock grew up on Lake Istokpoga in Lorida and studied to be a paramedic. He worked for four years as director of marketing for a medical transport company, but Bullock had always had a love for fishing and fish.
During his junior and senior year of high school, Bullock organized an aquaculture project for FFA, buying a collection of tanks from a pet store that was going out of business. It was not a small project. "We had 40 to 60 aquariums inside my mom's garage and about four to five large molasses tank-type bins," recalled Bullock. In those tanks, the teen raised Japanese koi, cichlids, goldfish and other popular tropicals.
The project earned him the title of state finalist in aquaculture and state finalist in diversified livestock both years.
Bullock loved the fish so much, he kept raising them all through paramedic school and while working in the field of emergency response. His supportive mother, Jeaneen Bullock, kept the breeders in her backyard, but was thrilled to have the space freed up when Bullock decided to do more than just wet his feet with fish farming and purchased a 20-acre piece of property in Avon Park.
"Avon Park, known originally for pineapples, then brown and serve rolls, is now home to the town's first fish farm. We are an operation built with perseverance, hard work, sweat and hopes of achieving the American Dream," reads Bullock's website, www.gotfins.com.
The young entrepreneur recently purchased a second property in Venus - a former fish farm and nursery named Happy Trails Aquatics. After contacting the owner about purchasing some koi, Bullock found out that the man who had sold him his very first koi fish back in high school was now retired. The two started discussing the sale of the farm/nursery.
Now Bullock and his sister Renee Gatlin are diving into the south end of the county, cleaning up the 18 acre Venus property that sports 35 fish ponds and 30 above ground holding tanks as well as plant material like water lilies, Thai ginger, angel trumpet and more.
Bullock is now working two full-time jobs between his shift as an EMT for Highlands County EMS and Bullock Farms, but he has a big grin on his face.
"I get to fish for a living now. I get to grow them and catch them," he said.
And while Bullock Farms is largely run by just the brother and sister team, Bullock koi can be found in Orlando and "from the Keys to the panhandle," the young man said. They are also the top producer of mosquitofish in the state.
"Mosquitofish are a green alternative to using pesticide," Bullock explained. "They can eat 300-500 (mosquito) larvae per day," he continued.
A good crop of mosquitofish in a pond would literally decimate the larva population in an eco-friendly way. Pesticides can not only pollute water, but may also poison and kill native wildlife like frogs and the hawks that eat them, Bullock went on.
If he seems like he's really got it together for such a young businessman, Bullock credits his participation in Leadership Highlands County, and later Leadership Hardee County. The programs taught him so much about the area where he lived and the needs in the community.
"It was a huge life changer for me - an eat, pray, love moment," Bullock said.
Leadership Highlands gave him "that kind of push" to be a leader. "It doesn't matter if you don't have a big name or a big bank account if you have the qualities of a leader," he said.
Bullock also took heart in a quote he came across: "If you don't build your dream, someone is going to hire you to build theirs."
Bullock is now building his dream full force, but he hasn't forgotten what his leadership classes taught him about giving back. In addition to breeding koi, butterfly koi, tiger barbs, rhino pleco, cichlids, mosquitofish, and assorted platys, Bullock has started an aquaculture project at Cracker Trail Elementary through his involvement with the Avon Park Jaycees.
He is also a volunteer firefighter with Highlands Lakes, sits on the State Firefighters Association board of directors, and is a member of the Avon Park CRA advisory board, the Florida Farm Bureau and the Sebring Chamber of Commerce.
His plans for his business are to expand his retail location hours, which are currently 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 915 West Main Street in Avon Park and to use the new Venus farm to grow nursery plants and breed more tropical fish and mosquitofish as well as tilapia for hydroponics.
"We've been very blessed," said Bullock of his business, crediting the support of friends, family and the people he has met through community organizations.
"If you want to be successful, you have to surround yourself with successful people," he said.