Farming is farming for this fish farmer

THOMPSON, Ohio – Dick Black likes to say he’s the same as any other farmer.
He tests his soil, adds nutrients and worries about how his crop is growing.
Only his “crop” is fish and his “fields” are underwater.
Sure, it takes some adjustments, but after 47 years in the fish business, he knows what’s going on deep below that water as well as any grain farmer knows what’s going on in his corn fields.

The demand

Black’s dad worked for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and had a bait shop and that’s what Black thought he wanted to do, too.
But in the mid-1950s, at 18 years old, he read a newspaper clipping about a man who raised bass and couldn’t make a dent in the demand from people wanting their ponds stocked.
So Black bought some property in Geauga County and started putting in ponds.
Almost 50 years later, he has 42 lakes filled with fish and his own problems filling the demand.

Tinkering to perfection

When Black started Willow Valley Farm, he had issues with the fish, the water, the plants, the whole concept of aquaculture. After experimenting and perfecting his methods, he now focuses on making sure his customers – and even strangers – have an easier time than he had.
Although some of his customers want to raise fish for food production, most just want a nice-looking pond with big fish.
He fills water across northeastern Ohio with fathead minnows, largemouth bass, bluegill, hybrid bluegill, red-ear sunfish, catfish, white amurs and koi.
But he doesn’t just throw fish in a pond. For 27 years, he’s been stocking ponds according to a three-stage program.
First, in the spring, he puts in the minnows. Then, in June he adds baby bass at a rate of 200 per acre of water. By late fall, the adult bluegill go in the water.
This way, Black says he’s building a food chain that supports larger fish.
So far, he said, he hasn’t had a single complaint.

Training regimen

Having healthy, big fish begins with the feed, he said.
It’s so important that early on, he puts his fish on a feed-training program.
He starts by putting white silica gravel on the bottom of the ponds so he can see from the surface where the fish are nesting.
Then he uses a net to scoop the nest out of the water, and he transfers it to a “virgin pond” that is solely for new fish. In these ponds, the plankton is thriving and the fish flourish, he said. Plus, there are no predators, he said, to threaten their survival.
When they’re 1 1/4 inch, he moves them to tanks, or “throughs.”
Here, Black trains them to eat alfalfa meal. He feeds them eight times a day and usually after 10 days they are trained, he said.
Once they hit 2 inches, they go to other ponds and quietly grow until Black uses them to stock customers’ ponds.
They end up being taught so well, Black said, that all he has to do is wear a white shirt, like he did when he trained them, and they’ll all come boiling to the surface looking for their feed.

An offshoot

But it takes more than just training and feed and food chains to have a healthy lake, Black said. And that’s what other people realized, too.
He was getting so many phone calls for help and directing so many people to pond treatment companies that two of his sons opened their own business six years ago.
Through Willow Valley’s Aquatic Creations, Todd and Rich Black specialize in ornamental ponds, landscaping, waterfalls and koi ponds mainly for commercial businesses and housing developments.
The parallel side of this company is treating waterways and ponds. This way, when customers call Black with concerns about their ponds, he can direct them to someone he trusts to do things just as he would.
Although they aren’t giving out their secret, Todd and Rich use a process their dad developed.
Too often, Black said, ponds are destroyed by chemicals that are meant to help. When this happens, the decaying matter results in too much acid on the pond’s bottom. This causes ammonia buildup and means the fish can’t get to that thermal layer that protects them. The result, Black said, is a fish kill.
Instead, he sends in his sons and they run the treatment process Black said he’s used for decades.

Three of a kind

It’s just the three of them. Dick, Todd and Rich.
They work from their cell phones and the kitchen table. There’s no overhead, no one to answer to, no one telling them to hurry up.
That means each job gets 110 percent, Dick said.
“It’s like when you call the doctor. You want to talk to him now, get some answers – not nine days later. We know that’s what people want from us, too,” he said.
“We’re busy as heck but we don’t rush in just to be able to get out.”
That kind of attention also means Dick gets calls at 10 p.m., during the final inning of the Indians game, from someone who wants free advice about algae.
He flicks the TV to mute and answers every question.

The ‘playground’

Although Black can’t pinpoint how many hundreds of thousands of fish fill his ponds or how many hundreds of ponds he stocks a year, he insists this is just a “giant hobby.” He loves it, so he does it. It’s as simple as that.
He even compares his 52 acres of ponds and woods and trails to a “backyard playground.”
He could have chosen beef or hogs or beans, but he thinks having his farm underwater adds a little more challenge … and a lot more fun.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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