Ohio fish farmer finds success with recirculating systems


Note: This is one of two stories about fish entrepreneurs in Ohio. Check back soon to see the second story, which highlights a major producer who uses ponds.

WOOSTER, Ohio — Natural ponds may work for some fish growers, but for many, including Wayne County fish farmer Dave Lemke, the choice is in manufactured, recirculating tanks.

Lemke, who previously worked at ceramics companies in Toledo and Shreve, Ohio, has been raising fish in tanks for about 10 years, and has sold them from his retail store for nearly three years.

The benefits

The tanks have several advantages over ponds. For one, they require less land and space. He currently keeps tanks in the basement of his retail fish store — Scales to Tails Seafood Shoppe — located along Cleveland Road just north of Wooster.

Other tanks are kept at his home, inside a pole barn.

He also plans to install 120 more tanks inside a couple vacated veal barns in Wayne County, in coming months.

That’s a second benefit of tanks — they can be installed inside refurbished livestock buildings, or other vacated facilities, sometimes requiring little conversion efforts.

Other benefits include the ease of changing and filtering the water, ease of corralling and netting fish at harvest and the overall ability to control a fish’s environment, in any season.

Lemke operates the store with his wife, Wendy, and also has some full-time employees. If his expansion project takes place, he hopes to employ even more.

Different kind of farming

He didn’t grow up on a farm, but by Ohio Department of Agriculture’s definition, aquaculture is part of agriculture, and Lemke is making significant contributions to the food market.

He sells tilapia, bluegill, farm-raised perch, grouper, Chilean sea bass, mahi-mahi, ocean fish, trout and various seafood and fish platters and combinations. He currently sells his own product to restaurants, hospitals and nursing homes, and from the display cases inside his retail store.

But with the expansion project, he hopes to meet the demand of more retail stores, including groceries. Currently, the demand is far greater than what he can supply to larger stores, and it requires a consistent supply he cannot yet maintain.

“The fish industry is definitely growing,” he said, in ways that require large, consistent supply chains. “The next step is people want larger quantities and a better price.”

Dave Lemke said with the right system and filtration, he can raise a tilapia to finish in about eight months.

Other services

The Lemkes perform custom processing in the lower floor of their business, where they make custom fillets for individuals and fish businesses. Because they handle processing, Lemke and his wife are both Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points certified and receive regular inspections, at the federal level and by the Wayne County Health Department.

Before beginning their business, the Lemkes took fish production classes at Ohio State University in Piketon and the Agricultural Technical Institute.

More opportunity

Dave Lemke advises any newcomers to fish to “start out small and scale up like I did.”

As Ohio Proud members, the Lemkes are helping to advance the Ohio product in a market that has seen a lot of its supply imported from other states, as well as other countries, including China.

Experts say the United States has an annual seafood deficit of about $9 billion. And with many ponds and clay soils, Ohio is well-suited for pond-based aquaculture. But it’s also well-suited for tank-based fish, because of a close proximity to major population centers and a wealth of research.

As local producers, the Lemkes can control the kinds of fish they buy, how they’re raised and how they’re processed. That all leads to a more desirable product, Lemke said.

Their own family eats fish no less than twice a week, a product Dave Lemke said is safe and healthy.

Editor’s note: This is Part II of a two-part series on aquaculture. Click here to see Part I. An additional story about an Ohio fish farmer who uses natural ponds will be posted soon.

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