WOOSTER, Ohio — You can read dozens of publications and attend scores of workshops and presentations — all very helpful — but if you really want to understand something, sometimes you just have to see it.
In late July, a group of about 52 fish producers and self-proclaimed “wanna-be” fish producers boarded a tour bus outside the Ohio Agricultural Development Center’s Wooster campus, and set out on an all-day tour of some of the more prominent aquaculture businesses in northeast Ohio.
For beginners Charlie Eisenhauer and Paul Hasenmeier, the tour provided a wide range of information from raising fish to exploring markets and processing.
They raise a small number of perch fingerlings near Sandusky, and are looking at expansion options. Hasenmeier said he liked the idea of indoor concrete tanks, featured at Blue Ribbon Fish Farm. Unlike ponds, the tanks can be accessed year-round and the environment is easier to control.
“We can control the environment and raise them the way we want,” he said.
Eisenhauer, who is a welder along with Hasenmeier, said he learns something new at each aquaculture event he attends. He found the cost of constructing a new pond — several thousand or more, if contracted — to be more expensive than he realized.
One of the younger participants was Brad Dailey of Hudson. He’s interested in buying a 20-acre plot in Ohio’s Montgomery County that he thinks might be suitable for pond fish.
Dailey was pleased to learn that he could talk to his local soil and water conservation district about drilling test holes prior to constructing any ponds — to see whether the soil will support the kinds of ponds and fish he would need.
At Raber’s Fish Farm, Henry Raber said prospective pond builders should weigh their options. If they choose to go with a contractor, he advised them to first take a look at some of the other ponds built by the same individual, to see what kind of work can be expected.
At Laurel Creek Fin Farm, owner Chuck Jolley showed how he raises bluegill and largemouth bass with three ponds, and lots of record keeping. His records help him to chart feeding behaviors at various times throughout the season and prevent wasting feed.
Jolley has installed several features he designed himself — including an electric fence around the perimeter — to keep predators away.
Although Jolley is getting better at raising fish, he mainly raises them because it’s something he enjoys.
“It’s the only hobby I’ve ever had that sustains itself,” he said.
Fish farming is more than a hobby for Fender’s Fish Hatchery and Blue Ribbon Fish Farm, the last two stops on the tour. The Fender family has raised fish pretty much all their lives, and Steve Fender, the son of Dennis Fender (the company’s founder), has written a book about pond farming.
Standing in front of some old milk tanks they use to keep fish, and wearing his work clothes, Steve gave down-to-earth advice.
“Don’t invest more than you can afford to lose,” he said, telling producers to “link yourself up with people you can trust.”
There is generally a good relationship among fish producers, as they all look for more information and market opportunities, said Laura Tiu, aquaculture specialist with the Ohio Center for Aquaculture Research and Development, at OSU Piketon.
Tiu said producers usually don’t sharing, because the industry has a major production deficit with seemingly endless room for new growth. Plus, even the experienced producers are still learning.
Dave Lemke, who owns Scales to Tails, told prospective producers to “use the university to help you out in anything you’re doing, with your fish farming or your stores or your processing facility. They will help you and guide you in the right directions.”
At the end of the day, the message was still to plan, plan, and plan. But the tour provided more assurance for many.
“You really need to do some calculating before you get into aquaculture,” Tiu said. “It’s not to discourage you; it’s to make sure you understand what you’re getting into.”