Fish Farming a Growing Market

What cattle herding was to the Wild West in the 19th century, fish farming promises to be to agriculture in the Northeast in the 21st century.

Finfish farming in the Northeast is market driven. As a growing market, fish farming can complement another line of ag production or can be a backup as an off-farm job.

At Barr Family Farm in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, the plan from the get-go was to integrate fish production with hydroponic vegetable production. As with any operation, well-thought-out production and marketing plans proved keys to success.

“We market to the restaurant trade,” said David Barr, who runs the operation. Their main crop is off-season hydroponic lettuce for local restaurants and they produce tilapia.

“In the Northeast, tilapia is a much more marketable fish than catfish, for example,” Barr said.

Fish, like hogs or cattle, produce manure. The fish manure from the tilapia produced on this aquaponic farm is used to fertilize hydroponic greenhouse crops and field crops. Fish and lettuce have been a happy marriage since 2011.

The fish manure, in concentrated slurry, is fairly high in nitrogen. Fish manure needs to be combined or added to organic soil or another nutrient source. At this hydroponic operation, it fits the biosystem well. Especially in aquaponics, the plants can take up the nutrients just as in a spoon-feeding or trickle-feed system. “It is a slow drip of nutrients that is always available,” Barr said.

Barr markets through Farm Fresh Rhode Island, as well as the Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership. Both groups join producers of local, sustainable products with wholesalers and individual buyers.

Not all operations are large. “We do 4,000 pounds of fish per year,” said Scott Slater, owner of Great Brook Trout Farm, Bolton, Massachusetts. Founded in 2001, Great Brook is a small operation in tune with the growing trend to identifying a specialized market. He focuses on the rod and gun club market, selling large and oversize fish for fishing derbies at retail prices.

Slater got started in the business after his father operated a gravel pit. When the pit was worked out, he changed its focus to a pay-to-fish operation. “It was awful,” Slater said. “People stole the fish and left trash all over the place.”

But one memory stuck. “I remembered the first time he stocked the pond, and I thought, ‘That is freakin’ cool!’” he said of the delivery process. The farm was stocked in the dead of winter by Howard E. Robbins of Robbins Trout Farm in West Wareham, Massachusetts, after Slater’s dad cut a hole in the ice with a chainsaw. The fish came raining out of the truck and into the water.

Years later Slater decided to invest in a more advanced setup as a sideline to his carpentry business. Today, he sells brook, brown and rainbow trout by the pound. Some fish he sells are 5 pounds or better. Those super-sized fish will take more than a year to produce.

The Robbins Trout Farm where Slater’s father did business still operates today as a family-run farm. Started by Howard Robbins in the 1940s, it is now run by his grandson, Watie J. Akins. They market fish, mainly trout, through local farmers markets and to the restaurant trade. A typical year has them selling about 10,000 trout.

“If you want it to be your life’s work, and work at it full-on, it’s a great way of life,” Akins said. He runs the operation with his sons and niece. “It’s a family thing,” he said.

While they are doing all right, Akins said he would have to raise about four times the number of trout they do now to turn a decent living.

Much of the marketing is done by his wife at the local farmers market. “A 10- to 12-inch fish is the perfect size,” Akins said. While they do keep some back until they reach 14 or 15 inches for specific clients who want a larger fish, most buyers want something in the 12-inch range. That is a reasonable compromise between size and time on feed.

“We would like eventually to grow our own feed but right now we are buying it,” Akins said. Each finfish farm has its own approach.

Equipment check

Barr produces his fish in large polyethylene tanks using well water. They have four 650-gallon tanks in use at present. Gasoline generators back up the power requirements of the system.

After a year, fish approach market size. In New England, the cold retards growth. “I’m reluctant to crank up the heat,” Barr said. His tanks are inside and he is willing to wait a while before marketing.

Winter is a slow time for Robbins Trout Farm. Their system is based on the same wooden raceway setup built by Howard Robbins decades ago.

The system at Robbins Trout Farm is based on the same wooden raceway setup built by Howard Robbins – albeit with improvements and modifications since Akins took over in 2008-09.

Robbins, who worked for the Cape Cod Trout operation for years, initially planned to develop cranberry bogs. When berry prices crashed midway through the project, he extended the cranberry ditches and trenches, put trout into the streams and raceways and went fish farming. Today, his basic system is still used. Akins is quite familiar with the operation as he grew up on the farm.

“We’re still doing the wooden raceways,” Akins said. Of course, they have been upgraded since then. However, even improved wooden raceways need protection from varmints, so they have secure tops to keep out raccoons. “Nothing can get into them,” he said, “even though those raccoons are pretty crafty.”

Some tops have locks, which are there to keep the human varmint away. Theft is a problem at fish farms, according to producers.

Dikes and splash boards provide aeration. Construction and maintenance of dikes is a key job at any fish farm. Engineers recommend slopes be built on a 2:1 basis.

Each raceway has falls. Splash boards add oxygen to the system.

At Robbins Trout Farm, all water is gravity flow, resulting in less reliance on electricity. Akins said there may eventually be a wind turbine or solar power on the farm. Power would lift the water up to get more head of pressure and better flow. Now, they operate with one-sixth or one-eighth hp motors, which require little energy.

Great Brook Trout Farm is housed in greenhouses with fiberglass tanks. The key to success, Slater said, is to have a good water supply and reliable power to keep the oxygenator running. His system brings water into the oxygen chamber, drops it to a second chamber where air is super-oxygenated, and then splashes to the tanks.

“God help you if something goes wrong with the electric, your pump or your generator,” Slater said. “That will cost you a $30,000 or $40,000 crop.”

Just like any other livestock commodity, fish may be sold by the pound. But they also are sold by the head. Typical prices for trout range from a low of $2.25 per fish for a whole small, 6- to 8-inch brook, brown or rainbow trout, to the top-end 14-inch fish, which sells for $8.50 a pound. Note the difference between the charging mechanism for the less mature and the more mature fish – one by the piece, the other by the pound. The more typical 12-inch, of any variety, will command $8.25 a pound. A brown trout of that size will yield about 14 ounces of fish. Rainbows will yield 13 ounces and a lake trout, just 11 ounces.

Barr sells fish by weight, based on the live weight of the fish.

The type of fish farmed makes a difference in technique and technology. At one point, Slater said, he was interested in producing sturgeon – for the caviar and for meat. “But it takes eight years for them to come to maturity,” he said. He also has thought about producing hybrid striped bass, but there is too much competition and other producers are inhibited by the cost of water. He is fortunate to have his own water supply on his property where his main expense is electricity to pump and aerate the water.

Farmed vs. wild

Farmed fish may be the up-and-coming crop for Northeastern agriculture. “Fish are the last wildlife we harvest for food,” said Andy Danylchuk, assistant professor of fish conservation at the University of Massachusetts. “We have domesticated cattle, chickens and pigs.”

Wild fish, below the waterline, cannot readily be observed. Fish on fish farms can be monitored closely – for health, numbers and size.

“Given the demand for seafood, we may need to turn to aquaculture to meet that demand, but not all aquaculture methods are created equal. Looking for sustainable solutions for growing fish and other aquatic life is imperative, otherwise we’re just not going to have fish to eat,” Danylchuk said.

Other factors play a role. Slater said he was fortunate to get into the business in 1995 before it became highly regulated. And, he noted, the maritime fishing business is far more regulated than aquaculture. “When I got in was the last point where you could get in without it costing you a million bucks,” he said. “The permitting process can take years before – or if – you get anything into the water.

“Even construction of the pond is regulated today,” Slater said.

Despite his concerns, Slater is planning to expand into another specialty area next year – adding a smoker.

For those interested in getting into fish farming, focus on a species that is in demand, since the market can only absorb so much. At some point, the market will become oversupplied and people will be unwilling to pay for locally produced fish. Then, producers of South American tilapia and others will take over the market.

“There is not a ton of money to be made,” Barr said. “Eventually you will hit a certain limit and run out of customers who want to pay for the high price you have to charge for New England tilapia.” He figures cod, flounder, salmon, haddock, as well as his tilapia, will sell nicely in New England.

Fish from Robbins Trout Farm is sold through local farmers markets and to the restaurant trade. A typical year sees the Robbins Trout Farm selling about 10,000 trout.

“I haven’t explored the full potential of the market,” Barr said. “It depends on how much money you want to throw at it.”

That said, there may be opportunity for large-scale operations and for producers who are willing to explore niche markets.

Akins agreed. “If you want to put your nose to the grindstone, it could be a good living,” he said. “It’s a tough market right now. But it’s a great way of life.”