Aquafarmer: The lure of fish, shrimp

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LONDON, Ohio – What type of farmer introduces his animals to the farm and then doesn’t see them again for three months?

What farmer buys his animals for 10 cents a piece, yet later can gross up to $10 a pound?

And what other farm is basically an underwater operation?

It’s shrimp farming and it’s growing at a dizzying pace.

Open opportunities. Many farmers are getting their feet wet with aquaculture and contributing to it being the fastest growing agriculture segment, according to Laura Tiu, OSU Extension aquaculture specialist.

This niche segment is experiencing a 12 percent to 14 percent growth each year in the United States. The technology and demand is here and waiting, and aquaculture opens up a new diversification option for farmers, Tiu said Sept. 17 at the Farm Science Review.

This growth hasn’t excluded Ohio, where the number of aquaculture farms with permits has grown from 33 farms in 1998 to 275 today, Tiu said. Many of these are pilot operations.

The Midwest consumes approximately 1 billion pounds of seafood, and aquaculture produces 2 percent of this, Tiu said. Nationally, there is a $7 billion deficit in seafood, which leaves a huge window for aquaculture farmers to cash in on seafood.

Aquaculture is blurring the lines of “traditional” agriculture for many farmers. No longer are farmers strictly beef, dairy or swine. Instead, many farmers are finding alternative ways to diversify their operation and fish and shrimp farming may offer a solution, Tiu said.

Shrimp farming. Shrimp production is netting particular aquaculture interest.

Young shrimp, about the size of a dime, are purchased from a nursery for about 10 cents a piece, Tiu said. The shrimp are put into the water June 1 and not seen again for three months because they stay on the floor of the pond.

Tiu said some farmers may see this as risky because they continue throwing money, in the form of feed, into the water daily and never see the product until harvest.

Although the shrimp need to be fed once a day, the only busy day is in September, when boot-clad people go into the muddy water to harvest the shrimp, Tiu said.

After a few years of experience in aquaculture, farmers can expect to get approximately 1,000 pounds of shrimp production per acre, Tiu said. Shrimp are usually 10 to a pound.

The average price for shrimp is $8 a pound, sometimes going as high as $10 a pound.

The market for shrimp is in the live product, and prices are paid in live weight. In particular, ethnic markets want the live shrimp, Tiu said. This opens a new door of advantage for local aquaculture farmers because foreign exporters can’t give consumers the live product.

Certification. Farmers cannot process shrimp on-site due to governmental regulations, but they can take classes that are for process certification. These classes are about $300, Tiu said.

Experimenting with this segment of farming does not require a permit. But, those farmers who raise the shrimp as food must have an aquaculture permit, which costs $50.

A separate permit that allows selling and transporting fish, is $10.

Fish farming, too. There is more to aquaculture than just shrimp – there’s fish, too.

Some of the suitable fish for farming in Ohio includes large-mouth bass, yellow perch, hybrid strike bass (with restrictions), hybrid blue gill, catfish and bait fish.

Although aquaculture is the “rearing of any organism in water in controlled or a semi-controlled environment,” it doesn’t deal with plants or amphibians, Tiu said. Ohio prohibits the production of organisms like mussels and clams for resale.

Production methods. Shrimp and fish can be raised in ponds, but it can be tricky to find a construction company that is familiar with building aquatic ponds rather than farm ponds, Tiu said.

The cost of a pond for aquaculture is approximately $10,000 per acre, she said.

Pond size can range from a quarter acre to 20 acres, but Tiu recommends smaller ponds, particularly for shrimp farming. A quarter-acre pond is easier to work with because you don’t need a boat to feed the fish or shrimp.

Another production option is the use of cages. These are used often in southern Ohio because the land isn’t flat enough for ponds.

Some positive aspects of cages is that they use an existing water source and it’s a “cheap way to get into aquaculture,” Tiu said.

The downside is that the fish grow slower.

Because of the high mortality rate of shrimp in close quarters, cages aren’t always a good option for production.

As shrimp grow, they molt because they are crustaceans. When their hard shell comes off, they are soft and vulnerable to attack for 24-36 hours. This results in cannibalization.

This is also the reason shrimp can’t be raised in tanks.

The third production technique is using a recirculating system, which conserves by using the same water. This is the most expensive production method and is the most technologically advanced.

Flow through is the fourth production method, but Tiu does not recommend it because it has been targeted as being environmentally unsafe.

Marketing methods. One way to market aquaculture is to sell the fish to people who want to stock their ponds. This means the farmer does not have to worry about processing or the associated fees. Another bonus to this marketing is that people pay more for recreation fish than they do for food fish, Tiu said.

The bait industry holds potential development in Ohio, Tiu said, and is another way to market. Tiu said that a producer in the Midwest brings $1 million of bait to Ohio each year, so imagine what Ohio producers could do with that market on their own.

The food fish industry is another marketing option, although the processing of fish can’t be done on the farm because it’s federally regulated. Therefore, the fish are sold to processors.

Nevertheless, the same issues associated with farmers who have grain and corn holds true for fish farmers as well. There is little control over the price of the farmers’ products, whether fish or corn.

Kinks in pond. Although this niche segment has broken through the net into the fastest growing segment of agriculture, there are still problems.

First, Tiu said there are limited extension resources. There are currently two people in Ohio doing the extension work and research for the entire state.

In addition, there is a lack of infrastructure, and she said it is still a struggle for the smaller farmers to succeed.

There are also Environmental Protection Agency regulations that need to be addressed. As aquaculture develops, concerns need to be addressed before they become a problem, Tiu said.

At the Piketon Research Center in Piketon, Ohio, Tiu receives several thousand requests about aquaculture each year, and she advises that producers “start small and understand the art and science of aquaculture and grow from there.”

For more information call the OSU South Centers in Piketon at 740-289-2071.

(You can contact Kristy Alger at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at kalger@farmanddairy.com.)

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