Toledo Blade: Livestock that swim gaining popularity as business in area

The fish farm near Ridgeville Corners, about 45 miles from Toledo, is among the few in Ohio big enough to require workers outside of the owners’ families.

It provides a variety of species for stocking ponds, such as largemouth bass, bluegill, yellow perch, channel catfish, koi, walleye, crappies, and fathead minnows.

“As with any small business, it can take years to become profitable, so having adequate capital is important,” said Laura Tiu, an aquaculture specialist with the Ohio State University Extension Service.

Don Sayers, a Toledo Jeep worker who owns Swamp Heaven near Colton in Henry County, has a fish farm as a sideline, raising bullfrogs and crayfish.

“You could make a living at aquaculture if you wanted to, and you wanted to work a lot,” he said.

The Hestermans and Mr. Sayers are part of Ohio’s relatively small but growing aquaculture industry.

The industry sold $3.2 million worth of products in 2005, nearly double the 19

Michigan’s industry was $2.4 million in 2005, up from $2 million seven years earlier.

Neither state ranked in the top 10 for sales in the $1.1 billion industry, or for number of farms. Ohio has 55 such farms, Michigan has 34. But some farms aren’t counted, particularly if they are smaller.

Ohio’s records show that the state has 215 licensed fish farms, and Michigan’s show that it has 70.

In this part of Ohio, most of the fish are sold to farmers and homeowners wanting to stock their ponds, but some are used for bait, and a smaller amount is sold to restaurants and grocers.

Dan Longnecker, a trout farmer outside Castalia, near Sandusky, believes the value of farmed fish and other aquaculture products in the state would be $10 million to $20 million if the many mom-and-pop operations were counted.

Ms. Tiu predicted 17 percent growth a year in the number of farms and value of products sold.

Most of the operations are sidelines for farmers or business hobbies for workers in other occupations, experts said.

Mr. Sayers, for example, is considering retiring next year and working full time on his small farm with its pond that covers just a third of an acre.

His first experiment with raising bullfrogs “was a disaster,” he said.

But he studied up on the subject and added green frogs, tadpoles, and frog eggs to his offerings on the Internet, and he said he has sold 50 booklets on crawfish-growing through eBay, at $9.95 each.

In contrast, the Hesterman farm has 19 ponds on 15 acres, produces products for 1,000 to 2,000 ponds a year, and hires half a dozen part-time workers.

One concern is a new federal ban on interstate shipments of some types of fish afflicted with a virus detected in a number of Great Lakes fish species.

Nationally, the industry is growing but increasingly is facing the same problems hampering other industries, such as global competition and high energy prices, according to researchers at USDA’s Economic Research Service.

One researcher cautioned recently that American consumers are likely to eat an increasing amount of foreign-grown farm-raised fish in the near future. But he projected the domestic industry could recover nicely as disposable incomes rise and fuel prices come down.

Energy costs proved to be the undoing of one area aquaculture business. Michael Morris, owner of Camelot Fishery in eastern Hancock County near Vanlue, said he closed the farm after about three years in operation, largely because of the prohibitive cost of heating water in six 5,000-gallon tanks in which he tried to raise yellow perch.

His goal was to sell the fish to restaurants and stores. Labor costs also were higher than he expected.

“It’s an expensive operation. You don’t want to jump into this thinking you’ll make a fortune,” he said. He runs a trucking company and hoped to raise fish as a retirement business.

Further, he explained, the money he received for the fish was not much more than his costs.

Fish farmers also have to cope with uncertainties such as water levels, said Don Schooner, owner of Inspired by Nature Inc., a pond-management and stocking firm in Weston in Wood County.

Because northwest Ohio has few springs, many ponds rely on wells, and this year is unusually dry, “on the edge of a drought,” he added.

Financing is another problem for some, said Mr. Longnecker, who manages Little Pickerel Creek Farm just across the Sandusky County line from Castalia, in Erie County.

Mr. Longnecker, a vice president of the Ohio Aquaculture Association, blamed the problem on regulation by Ohio’s Natural Resources Department, a situation he said hinders business financing. Most states regulate aquaculture under departments of agriculture, considering the operations farm-based businesses, he said.

The difference “may not seem important, but banks certainly feel it is,” he said.

Still, he is optimistic. His trade group has more than 100 members and he forecasts a good future for the industry, particularly for producing bait.

One growth area is in freshwater shrimp. Among the providers is Calala’s Water Haven, which raises hundreds of thousands of shrimp annually in giant indoor drums in New London, Ohio, in Huron County.

That firm also raises a million crayfish annually.

Mr. Schooner, with the pond-stocking business in Weston, said the industry is growing.

“But it’s a challenge,” he said. “We survive, live and learn, adapt and modify.”

Contact Homer Brickey at:

or 419-724-6129.