Aquaculture industry set to cast bigger net: Ag officials hope Indiana spawns more fish farmers

June 26, 2006

Forrest Gump owned a shrimp boat. Tim and Julie Connor have a shrimp farm instead.

The couple, who live on 22 acres near Monrovia, are in their third season raising prawn, or large shrimp, from a pond on their property.

The $4,000 they earned last year from selling 350 pounds of the crustaceans to the public is hardly enough to cause Tim, 47, to retire from the job he's held at Allison Transmission for 28 years. But if the sideline continues to grow, their clientele could grow to include restaurants.

"It's like getting an extra tax check," he said. "But we're just waiting for this thing to take off. Then I will buy more land and put more ponds in."

While the aquaculture industry in Indiana remains but a drop in the ocean, those who raise fish for consumption think it could be poised to make a larger splash.

They point to the state's central proximity to large metropolitan markets where demand is strong, coupled with a climate that provides for year-round production. An abundance of underground water to fill manmade ponds helps as well.

Nationwide, aquaculture production grew from $259 million in 1983 to $866 million in 2002, according to the 2002 U.S. Department of Agriculture census, which is completed every five years. Indiana contributed just $3.1 million, far below the $580 million it produced in grain.

No one is suggesting Hoosier farmers switch from feed to fish. Even so, farm ponds could be converted to support production and grain could be used for fish food to give farmers additional income.

The state's new Department of Agriculture, in its quest to tout the industry as an economic development tool, includes aquaculture in those efforts.

"We're trying to find new opportunities for producers to make more money off of their existing operations," said Sarah Yeager, the department's head of diversification strategy. "With people trying to eat more healthy, aquaculture falls into that category."

Act boosts industry

The industry is as old as the United States itself, although aggressive expansion did not occur until the early 1960s. Formal recognition came through the National Aquaculture Act of 1980, which encouraged its development.

The National Agriculture Act of 1985 gave a further boost by providing for the establishment of regional centers to coordinate research efforts. In Indiana, that's done at Purdue University.

Catfish by far is the most-produced fish in the country, generating more than 46 percent of the total aquaculture value, according to the census data. Annual production reached 660 million pounds in 2002, with a value of $425 million. Mississippi accounted for more than half the production, registering $243 million in sales.

With help from Purdue educators, fish farmers founded the Indiana Aquaculture Association Inc. in 1987. The organization, however, became nearly inactive before a rejuvenation led to its official incorporation in December 2003.

Indiana's commercial fish suppliers, which number about 50, are in business mostly to stock ponds. The handful producing fish for food mainly concentrate on striped bass, tilapia, yellow perch or shrimp.

These types of fish are raised in outdoor ponds or indoor tanks. Outdoors, the water temperature for shrimp needs to be 70 degrees. It takes them 110 days to reach market size, Connor said, which limits the growing season from June until September. He has a drain in his pond and uses a catch basin to harvest them. Some shrimp producers switch to rainbow trout in the off season to keep operations running year-round.

Kwamena Quagrainie, a Purdue agricultural economist who raised tilapia in his native Ghana, said more Hoosiers are beginning to express interest in aquaculture.

"Some farmers want to diversify into other areas of agriculture," he said. "People who have old hog barns wonder if they can covert them to raise fish, or they have ponds on their farms and want to put them to good use."

Testing the waters

Michael Miller of Albany has neither. But he is so convinced of the potential that he is investing in a costly system his Bell Aquaculture LLC company is developing to raise yellow perch. He declined to divulge the amount, but an expert in the industry said building a system capable of processing 50,000 pounds annually costs about $500,000.

A Chicago-area native, Miller, 45, left his corporate business affairs job at Turner Broadcasting System Inc. in Atlanta more than a decade ago. After living in Indianapolis for five years and Colorado for two, he and his wife moved to Albany-near Muncie, where he would visit a family farm as a child in the summer-to focus solely on his aquaculture operation.

Ground breaking is nearing on a building that will house tanks he designed and intensive recirculating systems necessary to raise the fish. His perch, which take about 10 months to reach market size, probably won't be ready until late 2007 or early 2008. The operation will be capable of housing 80,000 pounds of perch, with on-site capability for future development.

"We want to have as much control over the product as we can," he said. "We'll be able to baby-sit them from cradle to grave."

Miller initially hopes to sell perch to fine restaurants, legion halls and churches.

New channels of business

While he is just getting started, a couple of veteran producers have branched out into providing aquaculture equipment.

James Bradley, a 57-year-old farmer in Ladoga, formed Aqua Manna Inc. to manufacture a 4-foot-deep tank that is 8 feet wide and 32 feet long, and the accompanying filtration system.

Bradley began raising yellow perch in 1990 and added tilapia, serving Asian markets in Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit. He still raises fish, but he and his three sons concentrate more on manufacturing the systems, which cost $18,000 and take about a week to build. He's sold them in Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and even Cape Cod.

"I've pretty well perfected it," Bradley said of the system tested at Virginia Tech University. "We've hung with it and now we're going to make a run at it."

Like Bradley, Gary Miller of Syracuse began selling in 1990, although his specialty is a hybridized striped bass. A buyer presently takes much of his crop into Canada for consumption in the Asian market.

Miller, 58, is prototyping a filtration system that should allow him to produce more fish while maintaining a higher level of water quality. He earned a doctorate from Purdue University in fisheries biology, in which much of his coursework focused on wastewater treatment. He later built a water-processing plant, enabling him to grow fish year-round.

His Advanced Aquacultural Technologies Inc. company, which employs two people, provides growth systems and biofilter design and management.

Miller is hopeful the aquaculture industry can begin to make waves.

"If the state and the universities were to put forth anywhere near the interest they have in the biofuels industry," Miller said, "by 2025, aquaculture could be every bit as big as the swine industry is right now."
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