Two years ago, Dave Lemke lost his job so he netted a new one.
Today the Wayne County man works — will even expand soon — in a small but fast-growing industry in Ohio whose jobs have doubled in the past 10 years and whose economic impact has more than tripled in that time to nearly $50 million.
And he credits Ohio State University, and specifically its Ohio Center for Aquaculture Research and Development, or OCARD, as a key to his success.
“They helped me get to the point where I’m at now,” said Lemke, who together with his wife, Wendy, owns and runs the Scales to Tails Seafood Shoppe in Wooster and a five-acre fish farm near there. Later this year, pending bank approval, they’ll open a new $4 million, 10,000-pounds-per-week tilapia farm planned in large part with OCARD’s assistance. Seven new jobs will result.
Aquaculture experts with OCARD, headquartered at Ohio State’s South Centers in Piketon in southeast Ohio, study what’s crucial to the industry, including lower-cost feeds, improved fish genetics and greater efficiency. Then they transfer that technology to farmers such as the Lemkes.
“We’ve worked with them from the very beginning,” Dave Lemke said. “It started with a brochure in the mail about their workshops. We went there (to Piketon) for one of the workshops. Since then, it’s either been phone conversations or e-mails throughout, talking on a regular basis.”
Ohio State University Extension and the university’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, or OARDC, jointly support the program, which targets consumer demand for good, safe, healthy, local seafood.
“It’s a classic example of the research and Extension model,” said aquaculture specialist Laura Tiu, who leads OCARD’s outreach efforts. Science flows from the center’s labs to farmers in the field — or pond, as the case may be — who use it to grow their farms, profits and industry, she said.
Ohio State, as one of America’s land-grant universities, has a mission to bring research results to end-users. Dave Smith is one of those users.
“I’ve seen firsthand how the support of Ohio State has been important,” said the owner of Freshwater Farms of Ohio in Urbana, the state’s largest indoor aquaculture facility. Three generations of his family are involved with it.
Ohio State’s fish farming program provides “everything from a place to meet and gather people to bringing in the speakers and resources that people need to evaluate whether they want to get into fish farming,” Smith said.
In business since 1983, Smith numbered among Ohio’s first dozen or so large-scale commercial fish farmers. He served as president of the industry’s trade group, the Ohio Aquaculture Association, or OAA, for 10 of its first 13 years.
Because of his experience, he was asked in the early ’90s to contribute to the proposal that established Ohio State’s South Centers in Piketon — and with them, OCARD — in the first place.
“We’re talking about a brand new type of farming,” Smith said. “There’s not a cultural experience of kids growing up on a fish farm — except for my kids,” he chuckled — “so it’s always been important to have an educational and Extension component, to have an opportunity to learn about (fish farming) in other ways.”
He cites Tiu starting a new e-mail listserv, Aqua-Ohio, as one of those ways.
“It’s now heavily used by everyone in the industry,” he said. “It’s the trading place, the go-to place, for questions and making contacts. It makes everything start to move in an ‘industry’ sort of way. It’s given a lot of grease to the wheels for helping the industry grow.”
The program is yielding innovative research to move the industry in a positive direction.
“Ohio State is the only place in Ohio where people can get aquaculture information,” said Tiu, who holds joint appointments with OARDC and OSU Extension. “If there were no (aquaculture) program, there would be no innovative research and no way for the industry to privatize the results.”
“Ohio State’s aquaculture center has been instrumental in the advancement of aquaculture in Ohio,” said Bob Calala, whose Calala’s Water Haven in New London in Huron County raises freshwater shrimp (pictured right) based on pioneering OCARD research.
Freshwater shrimp, or Malaysian prawns, currently retail for up to $12 a pound. But no one had raised them on a large commercial scale in Ohio until OCARD scientists proved it could be done, and done profitably.
“The innovative research that (the center) has allowed us to utilize has been indispensable in creating jobs and advancing the aquaculture industry,” said Calala, OAA’s current president.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Aquaculture, Ohio now has 140 fish farms with annual sales of at least $1,000 compared to 80 in 1997, a 75% jump.
Employment on those farms more than doubled in that period, from 75 to at least 156 full- and part-time jobs — 81 new jobs, nearly a 110% increase.
Annual sales now stand at $6.6 million, compared to $1.9 million in 1997, a rise of nearly 250%.
Factor in a widely accepted economic multiplier of 7.5 — to account for feed mills, seafood shops, equipment suppliers and the like — and the industry’s total economic impact in Ohio hits $49.5 million, up from just a little more than $14 million a decade ago.
Still, Tiu said, there’s room for more growth. The U.S. has an estimated $9 billion to $10 billion seafood deficit — it imports more than it produces — so greater domestic production should find a market. And the Buckeye state seems well positioned to tap it.
“We’re an agricultural state, and most people who are successful in aquaculture have a good understanding and experience in agriculture,” Tiu said.
Ohio has large population centers with millions of potential customers — for food fish as well as for baitfish and pond stockers.
Finally, “We have state and private organizations that are willing to work together to help grow this industry,” Tiu said, citing the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Ohio Department of Agriculture, Ohio Soybean Association (in developing new feeds based on soybeans), Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, North Central Regional Aquaculture Center, producer groups, Hocking College and Ohio State among them.
Such teamwork has been a boon to Lemke. So has support from higher education. “And it’s not just been from Ohio State,” he noted. “I’ve had help from Michigan State, Arizona State, Purdue, Arkansas. Without them, without the people who’ve helped from the universities, I’d be nowhere.”
Today Lemke focuses on yellow perch and bluegill. He grows them in ponds and in tanks in the store’s basement. He sells them as fillets in the store, to restaurants and also through area distributors.
Also in the basement: a tank of some 2,000 fingerling tilapia, recently flown in from a Colorado hatchery. It’s a small trial run in advance of the expansion.
The new farm, 15,000 square feet with 300,000 gallons of recirculating water, will be housed entirely indoors — in a converted veal barn retrofitted both for raising tilapia and for maximum energy efficiency. Its total annual production may top half a million pounds.
More than two-thirds of the fish raised there will go for live sales in Asian markets in Midwestern big cities: Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, Pittsburgh. About a third will be sold as conventional fillets, again in the store and to restaurants and distributors.
To handle the expansion, Lemke will ramp up his workforce from three jobs to 10.
For their part, Tiu and others helped Lemke develop the proposal he pitched to the bankers; connected him with suppliers for the new facility, such as the Israeli manufacturer of a state-of-the-art fish feeder; and continue to serve as his technical advisors.
“Laura can tell you for sure if a system is appropriate for you and if it will work in the U.S.,” Lemke said. “The best thing is, she tells people up front, ‘Do your homework first before you go and invest a bunch of money.’ She has helped me out quite a bit.”
“It’s been extremely gratifying to watch this industry grow,” said Tiu, who came to the center from a similar program at Kentucky State. “It’s great to be able to help clients, whether they’re putting in a freshwater prawn pond that nets them $2,000 a year or writing a business plan for a $4 million tilapia farm.
“The point is,” she said, “every time there’s a success, the whole industry benefits. Our leadership role within the industry helps keep everyone connected and informed so we can do great things together.”
About a dozen scientists and staff make OCARD tick. They work at the South Centers in Piketon supported by both OARDC and OSU Extension; at an adjunct facility in northwest Ohio, the Bowling Green Aquaculture Satellite Center, which opened in 2005; and for a federally funded sub-unit of OCARD called the Ohio Aquaculture Research and Development Integrated Program (OARDIP). Together they “target real industry needs,” Calala said.
Among their latest efforts:
• One study is improving the genetic traits of yellow perch so the fish grow faster and reach market sooner — in only one year instead of two. So far, five improved genetic lines — so-called “super perch” — have resulted, and OCARD has distributed some of them to farmers.
As it is, Ohio already ranks first nationally in pounds of perch sold. Mild, sweet and lean, yellow perch retails for up to $17 a pound.
• Another study aims to produce male-only bluegill, which grow twice as fast as female bluegill. These “YY-chromosome” males, like the improved perch, would be sellable sooner. They’d yield more fish and income over time.
If the research succeeds, Ohio will strengthen its lead: it ranks first in the U.S. in bluegill production too.
• Studies to find a fishmeal alternative are looking at soybeans, which are abundant in Ohio; at algae grown in fish farms’ wastewater; and at insects raised on distiller’s grain byproducts from Ohio ethanol plants. Fishmeal provides needed protein in fish feeds but is getting more expensive and less available.
Indeed, Smith said feed costs are one of the industry’s biggest constraints, and not just in Ohio.
Tiu said new soy-based feeds would lower those costs and create a new market for the state’s soybeans, about a 200-million-bushel-a-year crop, while using insects and algae in feeds would not only put waste to good use but would cut fish farms’ costs in the process.
Smith sees new feeds as an opportunity. “We have the agricultural resources here in Ohio that other (major aquaculture) states only dream of,” he said. The state’s rich grain crops, plus its feed mills and infrastructure to process them, “should be a great competitive advantage for us in growing the industry in Ohio.”
OCARD, in its role, is a linchpin for that growth.
“They’re responding to real problems, practical problems, in the Midwest that need to be worked on,” Smith said.
“They’re always very helpful in helping (fish farmers) get to where they want to go and trying to find the best answers for them,” Lemke added.
“This is the whole key to why there are land-grant universities,” said Smith of the center’s research and outreach. “It’s been a big thing for aquaculture. It’s a necessary part.
“As people are trying to look for more jobs, or create their own jobs, this is the stuff we need.”