NEW LONDON, Ohio – Bob Calala climbs down a grassy embankment to the pond’s edge.
The plastic container he carries has only a handful of dead crayfish in it, and he tosses them, a few at a time, into the water.
One sinks almost out of sight before it disappears into the mouth of a hungry bluegill.
The water ripples.
He tosses a few more.
The fish come closer to the bank, scrambling to grab a bite. They’re nearly jumping from the water to snag the crayfish ahead of the competition.
“All you have to do is throw them, and they come quick,” Calala said.
The statement is true in more ways than one: Calala and his brothers, Louis Jr. and David, found that by offering a good product to a demanding marketplace, they’ve built a savvy business with lots of room to grow.
History. The Calala family didn’t always wear waders or know its way around aquaculture ponds.
In fact, Bob lived in Lakewood, a Cleveland suburb that sits right on Lake Erie, until his parents bought this place when he was 10.
In Lakewood, the Calalas owned a bait store, but Louis Calala Sr. was always an outdoorsman, according to his son. His dream was to have his own facility where people could come to hunt, fish and camp. The 132 acres just north of New London he bought in 1963 would be home to that dream.
That was, until local zoning officials informed the Calalas their property was zoned agricultural and residential. No hunting club would be allowed here; no campsites for profit could be offered, even though the family had already prepared them.
Instead, Louis Calala opened a fish hatchery in his basement.
One-shot deal. Though their farm didn’t have a single pond on it when they moved there, the Calalas didn’t let that stop them. They got to work digging ponds, and built a business selling smallmouth bass and bluegills to stock ponds.
And then there was a hurdle.
“Unless there’s something catastrophic, it’s a one-shot deal. You stock your pond once. That’s a nonrenewable market,” Calala explained.
And so 25 years ago, the family added bait crayfish to their list. It was a high-dollar market and, from their experience in the bait store, they knew there was nobody else in the market locally.
There was a never-ending market spread in front of them.
“Every time a fisherman puts one on his hook, he needs another,” Calala said.
Shrimp. Just four or five years ago, the Calala brothers branched out again and brought freshwater shrimp to Huron County.
Back then, Bob was president of the Ohio Aquaculture Association and was involved in an Ohio State University project to bring prawns to the state. Since he was already using shrimp food on the farm and had the ponds, it was an easy addition.
The Calalas stocked a pond that June and were disappointed with their first harvest, only 100 pounds.
The next season, they stocked again – each shrimp weighed less than half a gram – and at harvest in September, were rewarded for their efforts. Their 1-acre pond yielded more than 1,000 pounds of shrimp.
“At $8 per pound on-farm sale average … you do the math,” Calala said. “Would you make that much with a single acre of corn or soybeans?”
Still growing. Today, they have 60 ponds covering 90 acres of the farm. Ponds range in size from 1/16-acre up to 7 acres.
The softshell crayfish are a premier bait that have allowed the Calalas to carve a niche market. Crayfish demand forces them to air-freight the creatures to a Chicago bait dealer or as far away as California.
Their facility is the largest of its kind in this part of the country, Calala said.
Shrimp nursery. They’re also the only shrimp nursery in Ohio. In its fourth year, the nursery feeds hatched shrimp for 45-60 days in a series of tanks Bob designed, aided with a self-designed water circulation system that keeps water flowing.
The tanks are 15- and 18-foot diameter grain bin rings stacked two high with waterproof liners inside.
The baby shrimp float on plastic and mesh ‘boats’ in 85-degree water, waiting their turn for shipment to other growers across the country or, if they’re left after orders are filled, a trip to the Calalas’ own outdoor ponds.
In 2006, the Calalas shipped 300,000 nursery-size shrimp nationwide, and have goals to up that to 500,000 this year.
Open market. There’s still a wide-open market for all things aquacultural, Calala said.
It’s the fastest-growing segment of American agriculture: We import $8 billion in fish and shrimp from other countries, and domestic research and development continues at a hardy pace, too, he said.
Just a few years ago, there were only 33 state-licensed aquaculture operations in Ohio, Calala said. Today there are more than 200.
“It’s only going to get more and more profitable.”
They want shrimp. The largest market for aquaculture in the U.S. is shrimp, Calala said, and his own on-farm experience backs that up.
The brothers market all their grown shrimp on the farm each fall. They place a small ad in local papers, nothing fancy, telling anyone interested in buying farm-fresh prawns to bring their own ice and coolers to the farm on a specific date and time.
Two years ago, the ad said the sale would start at 10 a.m., first come, first served. Cars started snaking down both sides of the driveway at 9 a.m., and the Calalas had to hand out numbered cards to keep the crowd organized.
By 1 p.m., more than 800 pounds of shrimp were gone, and the ponds were empty. More than half the customers who had come for shrimp went home with empty coolers.
In 2006, more than 1,500 pounds of shrimp were sold in roughly five hours.
“Most who raise shrimp can’t raise enough. But if you grow them, they will come.”
(Reporter Andrea Zippay welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)