Toledo Blade: Fin Farm is a very fishy operation

This Article was originally published in the Toledo Blade

RIDGEVILLE CORNERS, Ohio — It takes much more than water and feed to raise healthy fish. And if you are going to raise millions of them, there had better be a lot of sound science behind the operation too.

At the Fin Farm on the edge of this tiny Henry county berg — northwest of Napoleon — science rules the day, every day.

In the 20-some ponds on the property, and the large containers positioned in the indoor facility, more than a dozen species of fish are hatched, nurtured, monitored, and cared for by the Hesterman family at this fin-filled operation, which in essence is a huge laboratory.

Fish are very sensitive to water quality issues: temperature, oxygen levels, and over-crowding.

They also are susceptible to a variety of diseases, so everything is scrutinized very closely.

“You have to know what’s in the water so that you can address any minor problems right away,” said Bob Hesterman, who manages the fish farm with his wife, Ann, son Ryan, and a small staff.

“We are always analyzing the water to make certain we produce very healthy fish. There is a lot of biology involved in this type of business.”

And also a robust dose of chemistry, physics, and physiology, all in the interests of ichthyology — the branch of zoology that deals with creatures with fins.

“Around here, everywhere you turn, there are fish,” Ryan Hesterman said. “They need your attention every day, and some of this gets pretty complex. There’s a lot that goes into raising healthy fish.”

Ryan Hesterman owns a degree in environmental science from Ohio State, while Fin Farm employee Craig Bonner is a biology grad from Adrian College.

The elder Hesterman got his baptism into the science and biology of raising fish while attending Hocking College in Nelsonville in southeastern Ohio, by serving an internship with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service at its Hebron hatchery.

In 1982, he went to work for the Ohio Division of Wildlife at the pheasant farm near Urbana, and also worked on the state’s quail restoration program.

Hesterman later went back to work at the Hebron hatchery, which had been taken over by the state.

He was on the staff there for 10 years, moving up to assistant manager.

While he was working for the Division of Wildlife, Hesterman saw a dramatic increase in the demand for white amur, a non-native fish that is employed as an effective, nonchemical control of many types of vegetation in ponds.

He got a license and started a side business in Licking County to sell the exotic imports, which must be sterile so there is no risk of them becoming established in our water systems.

He later worked as the wildlife officer in Henry County before retiring a couple of years ago and concentrating his energies on the Fin Farm.

“It’s been very rewarding to be able to work this as a family business,” said Hesterman, whose late father helped out at the Fin Farm until his death last year.

The operation is located at the site of an old brickyard, where Hesterman’s father started digging ponds in the 1980s.

Today, the Fin Farm sells pond aeration systems, fish feed, and weed control products, and its live fish stock goes to pond owners throughout Ohio, and to customers in Michigan and Indiana.

Hesterman added that the fish business today has its share of challenges, namely, staying on top of the government regulations, the hatchery health certification requirements, and the complexity of securing import permits for certain species.

The Fin Farm’s indoor tanks, which are very large, circular plastic tubs or rectangular walled structures, use a continuous stream of filtered water and oxygen to keep the fish healthy.

The outdoor ponds hold segregated groups of fish, with anything from tiny yellow perch in one to larger bass in another. The ponds are drained each year, and the buildup of muck and waste removed from the bottoms.

The Hestermans raise largemouth and smallmouth bass, along with a hybrid cross between a striped bass and a white bass, often known as a “wiper.” The largemouth bass outsell the smallmouth about 100-to-1, and along with bluegills the largemouth are the most commonly stocked fish in many farm ponds.

The Fin Farm also produces crappie, pure-bred bluegills, hybrid bluegills that are a cross between male bluegills and female green sunfish, redear sunfish, channel catfish, yellow perch, walleye, and fathead minnows for use as forage for predator fish.

The Hestermans also sell the amur, or grass carp, and are doing a brisk business in the newest entry in the natural pond maintenance market, the blue tilapia.

This fish, native to the equatorial regions, helps control vegetative growth while its young provide a forage base for bass. Because they cannot tolerate water temperatures below 50 degrees, tilapia are stocked in ponds each May.

“Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen the tilapia side of the business become a big thing,” Hesterman said.

Another expanding segment at the Fin Farm is rearing koi, the brightly colored fish most commonly stocked in water gardens or small backyard ponds. The koi tanks at the Fin Farm are swirling masses of orange, white, black, gold, and blue as the fish exhibit seemingly endless patterns and coloration combinations.

About 90 percent of the fish raised at the Fin Farm will end up in private ponds and water gardens around the region, Bob Hesterman said. He has seen the market for pond stock increase significantly over the last couple of decades as the popularity of ponds in rural and semi-suburban residential areas has grown, and the increase in the number of water gardens has risen dramatically.

“Things have changed a lot since the ’80s, with so many more ponds around, so the fish business has grown to meet the increased demand,” Hesterman said.