Sustainable, fresh and local among the goals of growing number of fish farmers.
As David Smith walks through his barn, hundreds of eyes follow him. He approaches one of his holding tanks, and the fish excitedly swim toward him. Smith, a Farm Bureau member, dips a hand into a bucket of feed and tosses it into the tank. The feeding frenzy begins as the fish bob out of the water and into each other as they try to get a bite of food.
"They're like little pigs," Smith said as he carefully watches the trout eat. A sluggish response from the fish might mean something is wrong with the water.
"I love to see that (frenzied eating)," said Smith, who hand feeds all of his fish to observe their behavior. "The trout are very fussy. They've got to have two times the oxygen of other fish, the cleanest water. You can't raise them in crappy water."
When it comes to raising fish, Smith is an expert. His love of fish started when he was a toddler and he went fishing with his father. While at Ohio State University, he majored in aquatic biology and went on to receive a master's degree in marine biology, a doctorate in fish nutrition and received hands-on training of indoor recycling of water at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. With three degrees under his belt, Smith bought an abandoned chicken farm in his hometown Urbana and in 1986 started raising trout.
"Our challenge was to (raise fish) economically. Universities have a way of doing things without regard to cost," he laughed. "Their cost of rearing yellow perch and trout in today's dollars was over $22 a pound. We got that down to less than a dollar a pound."
Today, Smith's five-acre Freshwater Farms of Ohio is the state's largest indoor fish hatchery, raising up to 100,000 pounds of fish yearly. The farm raises rainbow trout, largemouth bass, yellow perch, bluegill, channel catfish, fathead minnows, goldfish and koi. The fish are raised both indoors and outdoors and are available for stocking or processing. Some of the trout go to the Columbus Zoo's new polar bear exhibit. One of the barns has been converted into a retail store that sells fresh rainbow trout fillets, Ohio-grown products such as maple syrup and cheese and a wide variety of pond and water garden supplies.
Agritourism is a big part of the farm's operation today. In one of the converted chicken barns, visitors can feed the fish or visit the petting zoo of toads, frogs and sturgeon, a large native Great Lakes fish that is endangered in Ohio. For the past nine years, Freshwater Farms has hosted the Ohio Fish & Shrimp Festival, which features freshly harvested shrimp for sale from Ohio farmers and food vendors who prepare fish and shrimp dishes.
Shawn McWhorter, an aquaculture specialist at Ohio State, isn't surprised by the growth of Freshwater Farms over the past two decades. He said aquaculture - raising aquatic species for bait, stocking or commercial consumption - is becoming more popular in Ohio. In 1995, the Ohio legislature designated fish farming as an agricultural activity and a few years ago, there were only 30 registered fish farms in the state. Today that number is at least 240, said Brent Dixon, president of Fish Farmers of Ohio Association, which has 70 members. Aquaculture sales in Ohio have tripled from $1.8 million to $6.6 million in recent years, according to the Ohio Aquaculture Research and Development Integration Program.
"Aquaculture is just in the infancy stage in Ohio," Dixon said. "I believe the industry will grow by leaps and bounds."
Demand for seafood is driving the expansion of fish farming. The U.S. seafood trade deficit has grown to more than $9 billion annually, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The United States imports 84 percent of its seafood and half is from aquaculture, but the United States is a minor aquaculture producer, supplying about 5 percent of the U.S. seafood supply.
Interest in aquaculture is so high in Ohio that Smith and other established fish farmers said they don't have the time to answer all the questions. McWhorter is currently working with 10 farms interested in raising bait fish.
"It's not easy to start up an aquaculture business," he said. "People have to do their homework before starting it. The potential is great but you have to remember that this is agriculture and there's risks to it. You have to understand chemistry, physics, aerodynamics, animal husbandry. Everybody likes watching fish but there's much more to it."
At Freshwater Farms, business is so brisk that Smith's parents and his son are now involved in the operation. When the farm first started raising fish, the fish were sold wholesale to restaurants. Smith's wife, Carol, did the marketing, showing restaurants hand cut boneless fillets.
"When the restaurants saw what a same day, fresh fish fillet looked like, it was an easy sell," Smith said, pointing out that his fish have been sold to restaurants in Springfield, Dayton and Columbus. As the business expanded, the couple bought a meat packing plant in West Liberty to keep up with demand. As more people started visiting the farm, Smith received approval to dress the fish in front of the customer and opened the retail shop. Today, Freshwater Farms is 100 percent retail and so successful that it has to turn business away.
"We just can't grow enough. We're buying from other fish farms in the area and processing their product," Smith said, noting that the fish is now processed on the farm under state and federal regulation.
Sustainability is a big part of Smith's operation. He has a recirculation aquaculture system, which uses tanks and filters and recycles the well water continuously. A barn that houses his fish is solar heated with fans helping circulate the heated air. He also uses a wood fired boiler and is looking into using byproducts from ethanol plants to feed the shrimp that he eventually wants to raise indoors.
Smith, who calls his farm his "research and development playground," said he is always looking for ways to improve his operation and the aquaculture industry. Opportunities may open up for other farmers as a result.
The Ohio Soybean Council has sponsored aquaculture events and has invested in research aimed at using soybean meal as a high-protein fish food. That could provide a local and stable source of feed in light of dwindling fish meal production.
"As the aquaculture industry grows, so will the amount of soybeans needed," Dixon said. Dixon, an enthusiastic promoter of Ohio aquaculture, recently put in four-acres of ponds to enhance the value of his southeastern Ohio property.
"Aquaculture is an environmentally friendly and sustainable industry that can give property owners tremendous opportunity for seasonal cash flow," said Dixon, who raises hybrid bluegills, largemouth bass and yellow perch. "Watching fish is like watching a fire - it's mesmerizing. Everybody likes watching fish. Why not make money at the same time?"
Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Franklin County.
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Watch an Our Ohio TV segment about Freshwater Farms on YouTube.
A Real Fish Story
Aquaculture sales in Ohio have tripled from $1.8 million to $6.6 million in recent years. Nationally, Ohio ranks first in sales of yellow perch for food and is the No. 1 bluegill producing state. Ohio also ranks fourth in sales of bait fish and largemouth bass sold for sport and fifth in number of baitfish farms.
Source: Ohio Aquaculture Research and Development Integration Program