Beaver Township flood plain is paradise for Calvin fish farm

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CANFIELD, Ohio – Just east of Paradise, the road changes from pavement to gravel, gradually narrowing as it cuts a path down a steep hill and comes to an end in a flood plain.

Richard and Tim Calvin’s 160 acres off Calla Road is also bordered to the east by the noisy Ohio Turnpike as it passes through the corner of Beaver Township in Mahoning County – a piece of property that most would deem useless agriculturally. It’s not a traditional farmer’s paradise.

But for the past 23 years, the brothers have been successfully raising a crop in what has been identified as Ohio’s fastest growing segment of agriculture – fish farming.

Paradise Fish Farm, one of region’s few aquaculture operations, hatches and feeds out hundreds of thousands of fish each year, including channel catfish, yellow perch, bluegills, largemouth bass and other specialty fish.

Recreation site. The operation started more than 30 years ago after the pair’s father operated a public recreation lake at the site, situated less than 5 miles from the center of Boardman and the hub of a still-growing suburban population.

“Dad started the lake but found that it was hard to deal with the public, and the people always left a lot of litter,” said Rich Calvin. The lake closed soon after.

The wetland, bordered by Mill Creek and often subject to flooding, wasn’t suitable for traditional agriculture. Since the lake was already built, the logical step for the family was to start farming fish, Calvin said.

Early peak. For the past 23 years, Rich Calvin has been raising and selling fish full-time.

“It’s really a one-person operation. I’ve had a number of crop failures over the years, but I’ve continued,” Calvin said.

This year’s crop, however, shouldn’t come close to being a failure, he said. The mild winter weather has proven to be an asset.

“This year, the fish survived the winter quite well. In general, that’s a good thing, but I was caught a little off guard,” Calvin said of the spring spawn.

“I’ve really got a bumper crop of eggs this year, so it will be interesting to see how things turn out at harvest.”

He’s already stocked most of his ponds with four times the number of eggs he expected to be laid this spring, and female yellow perch in stock ponds continue to lay eggs.

Spawning season usually peaks in early April, but the higher winter temperatures and lack of ice on the ponds pushed the window up two to three weeks, Calvin said.

“I wasn’t really prepared to be out there putting ribbons out in the middle of March, but when nature calls, it’s time,” he said.

Spawning season. Each female spawns approximately 15,000 eggs in each ribbon, a long tubular sac.

In their natural environment, the females prefer to lay the eggs on the downwind side of the pond and wrap them around cattails or other vegetation, but Calvin’s production method calls for him to collect ribbons and relocate them to another pond, designated specifically for hatching young fish, called fry.

After collection from the female stock ponds, several 5-gallon buckets containing 300,000 eggs each are transferred to one of the farm’s 10 2-acre ponds for hatching and early growth.

“Each ribbon has to be aerated, and the eggs won’t hatch if the ribbon isn’t agitated a little bit,” Calvin said.

If ribbons or sections of them overlap, eggs will be suffocated and turn white within a day.

“A good egg is almost transparent until the fish develops. You can see two little dark spots on each egg, the eyes,” he said.

Seven to 10 days later, depending on water temperature and length of day, the small fish hatch. With warmer water temperatures, around 55 degrees, the eggs can hatch in as little as five to six days, Calvin said.

Survival rates. The majority of the fry won’t survive past the fourth day, and only one in 1,000 survive the first month, according to Calvin. Bigger fish can take a heavy toll on the younger ones during the first year.

“Fish are born predators, and they eat a lot of plankton. If an early freeze kills a lot of the plankton, or a pond is overstocked, you’ll see a lot more of the younger fish being eaten by the bigger ones,” Calvin said.

“It’s pretty easy to wipe out an entire pond if you don’t manage everything correctly.”

To help keep adequate plankton in each pond, chemical or natural fertilizers, including manure, or alfalfa meal is added to the water.

“Chemicals are expensive, so we prefer to use whatever natural controls we can. Measurement of anything used is especially important, because using too much creates big problems with filamentous algae,” Calvin said.

At colder temperatures, eggs take longer to hatch and are vulnerable to fungus that starts growing on dead eggs. Insects and disease are also concerns on the farm, but periodic draining of each pond and chemical treatments help control any outbreaks, he said.

Harvest time. Six weeks after hatching, the fry have grown to nearly 2 inches. At that point, they are netted out of the earthen hatching ponds and moved to tanks indoors for finishing. All harvesting has to be done in cool, cloudy weather to minimize stress on the fish, so most work is done in the early morning or late evening during the summer.

All of Calvin’s fish are trained to eat artificial feeds, including pellets and crumbles.

“The perch and largemouth bass are trained to eat crumbles, so they don’t have to exert more energy to find food,” Calvin said. The result is quicker growing and finishing.

Currently, contained tanks on the farm allow Calvin to stock game fish and fish intended for food use, he said. Among the more unusual varieties he has are albino channel catfish, goldfish and koi, used in water gardens and ornamental ponds.

Calvin hatches 100 percent of the perch, bluegills and some minnows raised there, but a large percentage of the crop raised on the farm are hatched elsewhere, including catfish, since several varieties need flowing water to spawn or are more suited for warmer climates. However, the farm has adequate facilities to raise and market those varieties, Calvin said.

Industry value. The value of U.S. aquaculture production has grown by 5 percent to 10 percent each year over the past decade, and aquaculture is regarded as the fastest growing segment of U.S. agriculture, according to a 1997 report by Environmental Defense.

Fish are now farmed in every state in the country, and U.S. aquaculture production totals more than 400,000 metric tons of fish and shellfish, worth $729 million.

While Ohio fish farming is still an infant industry, it has the potential to be a major economic generator, especially in areas with poor soils or in Appalachian regions.

“Our soil here is pretty silty, not really good for crops. It holds water but tends to get muddy with a little wave action,” Calvin said.

Extra value. The farm’s location in a flood plain of the Mill Creek watershed puts it in a prime location for aquaculture and the threat of urban development.

The brothers sold an easement on the property to the county Soil and Water Conservation District in 1999 to protect the wildlife habitat area surrounding the property. Remaining acreage on the hill west of the flood plain is enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, and the Calvins have planted 12,000 trees there.

The site is a popular location with a regional bird-watching group and is home to eagles, osprey, migrating waterfowl and pests like blue herons and muskrats.

“To be successful in fish farming, you’ve got to be a top rate biologist and a good businessman, too,” Calvin said, noting the job, like most others in agriculture, requires long hours, high start-up costs and little pay.

“Like regular farming, we’ve got to plant and harvest on time and manage our animals. It just happens that we’ve got underwater livestock,” he said.

(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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