SALEM, Ohio – Marty Domer sees $10 bills swimming in the water. Thousands of them, ready to be swooped into a net and cashed in.
Plenty of opportunity for this cash floats right in front of farmers, they just need to reach in and take advantage of it, Domer said.
These bills aren’t necessarily in the form of green paper. They’re fish, which is about as close to money as it comes, the fish hatchery owner said.
The opportunities for aquaculture speak for themselves, Domer says. Fish are the second largest import in the United States.
“It’s the only farm product that is wide open and waiting to happen. It’s a bona fide, legitimate necessity.”
And according to SeaFood Business, the value of these imports is $9.9 billion, meaning there’s lots of money U.S. farmers could be pocketing instead of their foreign counterparts.
Day at the pond. The $10 bills Domer refers to in particular are the largemouth bass in one of Jim Rossiter’s ponds in Byesville, Ohio.
The 2 1/2 -pound, 18-month-old bass are being netted and taken to Domer’s fish hatchery in Mineral City, Ohio, to fill an order.
In two pulls, the men bring in about 2,000 pounds of fish. At the going rate of $4 a pound, that’s $8,000 worth of fish. And there’s still more fish left in the water to net another day.
These numbers are nothing compared to their potential. Domer says the average production is 5,000 pounds per acre and since Rossiter’s pond is 4 acres, that means 20,000 pounds of fish. With bass at $4 a pound, Rossiter’s pond is worth $80,000.
And this is just one of Rossiter’s several ponds stocked with bass, yellow perch and bluegill.
Family farms. Fish are the last alternative to bring life back to family farms – powerful words, but not to Domer.
It’s a diversification option for farmers who are feeling the brunt of low commodity prices and need to supplement their incomes.
“Farmers invest in a hay baler, tractor and equipment to put hay on the market. If they put the same amount into ponds, after two years the fish money would pay for the baler and tractor,” he said.
Domer says the opportunity for small farms to make an extra $30,000 a year with fish could keep their heads above water.
Even a 1-acre pond can gross $10,000, he said. Even though it’s small, it keeps farmers diversified and gives them something to build on.
Beef to fish. Such was the case for Jack Spencer of East Canton, who originally had a beef farm.
After he injured his back, he kept the farm but started also fish farming because it wasn’t as labor intensive.
He’s happy with the change: “You raise beef for pennies on the dollar, but your raise fish for a dollar on the dollar.”
Other people, like Rossiter, retire and get involved because they have the land and time.
“It can be a recreational venture, but it’s much more than that: It’s a food venture,” Domer said.
Missing out. Domer says there’s not a lot of state support for aquaculture, and Ohio’s leaders are missing out on building a billion-dollar industry.
Truckloads of fish from states that promote and finance aquaculture are being shipped to Ohio, when farmers here could be supplying the fish instead, he said.
This is a shame, Domer said, because Ohio is “such a good place for aquaculture.” The climate is right, the water temperature doesn’t get as hot as in southern states and Ohio has hard water that makes a better fish product.
In addition, Domer said 90 percent of all the main markets are within hours of Ohio, “basically in our backyard.”
But, Domer says Ohio is “light years behind other states due to funding and being acknowledged and endorsed.”
“We need 150 million pounds of yellow perch to meet demand in the five Great Lake-state region. It’s double if we want to supply to Canada and quadruple if we want to supply Europe,” he said.
Already this spring, Domer’s hatchery is running out of fish to fill the orders that keep coming.
Membership. Because there isn’t allied support, Domer and other area fish farmers are taking the initiative.
They aim to create a membership where the cost will employ professionals in biology, quality assurance and health certification. Domer says this will help protect farmers’ investments.
“It’d strictly be 100 percent for the farmers,” he said.
“The No. 1 problem is that we need millions more pounds of fish so there will be more marketing opportunities,” he said.
Domer’s hoping for this so he can someday open his own processing plant – a means for farmers to liquidate their product.
Big dreams for someone who left home at 15 and taught himself to read and write. But he saw the opportunity for fish farming at an early age and jumped at it.
So far, it’s paid off.
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Domer’s Fish Hatchery