Curtis Gram enjoys the challenges of tilapia production on his Freedom Fish Farms in Muskingum County.

Tilapia offer challenges and rewards at Freedom Fish Farms

By Matt Reese

With the whooshing of water and the whirring of pumps, upon entering Curtis Gram’s barn it is immediately apparent that the livestock he is raising diverges from traditional farm animals. At any given time, Gram’s Freedom Fish Farms in Muskingum County is home to 30,000 to 40,000 tilapia fish of different genetic backgrounds for the food market and for re-stocking private ponds.

Gram first had an interest in fish production after learning about an aquaculture operation in northeast Ohio.

“It just kind of got me thinking about it and life went on. It was 2016 when we bought the farm and we got started here at this property in 2018. The opportunity came back up to dive back into it learn about aquaculture. We felt it was a direction our family was heading to do something like this,” Gram said. “Ohio State University Extension got a grant opportunity to start what they call a ‘boot camp’ program. That program was once a month for a whole year and we could go learn about this from the Extension office in Piketon where they do all their research and development for aquaculture. We got introduced to the industry, introduced to other fish farmers and they taught us a lot. That’s what got me into it.”

With the goal of building a commercial-sized operation, Gram and his wife, Rachael, decided to test the waters of fish farming with the hope of keeping him close to home and family.

“I started building pilot operations in garages, and in my basement. I started at basically home aquarium level, then plumbing five or six aquariums together and running all that water into some type of filtration like 55-gallon drums and pumping it back into the aquariums, circulating that water and doing water tests. Then we jumped up into IBC tanks and kept growing. I wanted to grow slowly to make sure that I had an idea of what it took to move water around and that this was something that would interest me enough that I could viably do to support the family,” Gram said. “It took a good year and a half to build the facility. I put everything together in here myself. I had help with the building, but other than that it was me building all these tanks and systems and plumbing it all together. It took a while to get everything going and then it was almost 2 years until I felt comfortable and got a good flow going.”

Now the barn holds six 20-foot diameter swimming pools filled with tilapia.

The production system at Freedom Fish farms has taken years of trial and error to develop.

“Those swimming pools are connected under the ground through drains to my filtering equipment. You’ve got to filter all that water out and keep recirculating that water in those tanks all the time,” he said. “It is like a home swimming pool. You have to do a backwash on those sand filters. It’s more of a manual operation for a swimming pool, which you could do here, but here I’d need much bigger filters and it would be a lot of work if it was a manual process. The filtering equipment I have is expensive up front. They are drum filters that take all the water in and the affluent gets stuck to the inside of the screen mesh inside the drum. It starts plugging that drum up and the water starts rising. Once the water gets to a certain level, it automatically activates a wash with some high-pressure water. It cleans all that effluent off the drum and sends it out of the building. It does that automatically so I don’t have to be here to do all that backwashing.”

From the filtering equipment the water is pumped up to biomedia tanks.

“The biomedia tanks polish the water, cleaning up all the ammonia. The biomedia is basically housing a culture and good bacteria so it can clean out all the ammonia in the water that is produced when fish are breathing through their gills. You want to get all that ammonia out of the water,” Gram said. “From there, it gravity feeds back into all my grow-out swimming pools. It does that 24 hours a day.”

The water source is important as well.

“Out here in the country it’s ideal to use well water because it’s the least contaminated. If you’re using surface water or something in a pond, that can get contaminated and when you have a recirculating system you don’t want to be bringing that contaminated water in,” Gram said. “In the city, you’d want to get all the chlorine out of the water. You might have to put some filtration on that water if you’re getting it from a municipality.”

Tilapia have worked well in the operation because they are in high demand and relatively easy to raise.

“Tilapia are very forgiving fish. The water quality doesn’t have to be as pristine and oxygen levels don’t have to be as high. Tilapias are easier to raise than some of our native fish in Ohio. It was an easy fish for me to start with,” Gram said. “And on the other side is the markets. Food markets want tilapia, and I knew I could sell them year-round. Once they know you’re raising tilapia, it’s pretty easy to get into these markets because there’s not too many people doing it. If you have good food fish, they’ll buy them. Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati — these are all large markets that need lots of tilapia for the different ethnic groups in those cities. A lot of the fish coming into those markets are coming from down south and they can tell the quality of local fish. Some of those fish are being hauled 10 hours and by the time they get to the markets they just don’t look as healthy and strong. So, as soon as you show up to the market with good, healthy fish that look good that only came an hour away, it’s a pretty easy win.”

Every couple of weeks, Gram hauls 800 pounds of live fish to ethnic food markets in Cleveland, Columbus and, occasionally, Pittsburg in tanks on a trailer.

“We grade them and take the biggest ones. A couple days before going to the market, I take them off feed to let them purge their system. I don’t want their waste in that water that I’m transporting them in and I don’t want them doing the same thing at the market, because they don’t usually have good filtration. We’ll load them up in the morning the day we go and haul them to market. We put them in tanks that we have on trailers and then we put them inside live tanks at the market until the customers buy them,” he said. “If I’m raising fish for the food market, I want them to be all males. The males grow bigger faster and I want to get a fish up to size as quickly as I can. Sometimes the females just don’t want to eat the feed. Breeders have figured out ways to do hormone treatments and it pushes them to all be male. I’ll buy those fish from breeders, mainly down in New Mexico and in Florida. They are shipped on an airplane same day and I’ll pick them up from the Columbus airport in insulated boxes.”

Once the fish are on the farm, Gram pushes the feed.

“For the food fish, generally I bring them in at about half a gram. They’re pretty tiny when they come in. They’re here for 40 to 45 weeks to get them up to a pound and a half,” he said. “The markets would like them at 2 pounds, but it takes a lot to get them up to 2 pounds.”

The food market demand is steady, but the profit margins are significantly better for selling the tilapia for re-stocking private ponds once a year. Tilapia do not survive Ohio winters, so they need to be re-stocked each spring. 

“In ponds here in Ohio, we want to put males and females together because we want them to be breeding all summer long. Tilapia reproduce every 28 to 30 days when the water temperatures are right and you want them out there so they can feed all the bass and the bigger native fish in the ponds. They also clean out the algae and vegetation, so you’re not having to buy chemicals all summer long. One female holds 500 to 1,000 fish in her mouth until they get large enough and then she lets them go,” Gram said. “You need them every year so you get that customer base and they tell all their friends and neighbors. Your client base just grows because they need them every year.”

Gram wants the tilapia for pond stocking to be more genetically diverse.

“You want different genetics in there. We have several different breeds of tilapia, several different colors and we mix them. A lot of the customers don’t want just Blue Nile tilapia they like to see the Mozambique tilapia. They like the white tilapia because they can actually see them in their pond,” Gram said. “For pond stock, I’m raising them outside in my pond, letting them naturally breed all summer long. I catch them out of my pond and bring them inside all winter long, but I don’t want them getting too big on me so I’ll hold back feed. I’m only putting about 30 pounds of fish in a pond, and three to five fish per pound, rather than trying to get them all the way up to a pound and a half per fish. I want to make sure I got a very diverse genetic base there so I do have my own breeding stock. I’ll also reach out to some of my suppliers and I’ll get some of their females as well to bring new genetic lines in to keep them healthy and strong.”

Pond stocking fish require less time, less feed and command a higher price.

Tilapia do not survive Ohio winters and need to be re-stocked in pods each year.

“The pond fish are definitely nice on my pocketbook,” he said. “Usually in October or September I’ll start skimming my pond off and bringing batches inside for winter and sell them in May. Right now, I’m probably going about 60% to 70% to the pond stocking side versus the food side. The demand is so much higher for the pond side right now and I’m getting a lot more bang for my buck for the ponds.” 

After years of improving the system, Gram is still finding ways to tweak and improve.

“Of course there’s unexpected challenges — that is farming. The biggest thing is I put this system together and so when there are challenges, I at least have an idea of what’s happening. When you’re in a recirculating environment, you’re supplying all their needs. Their whole environment is based on what you’re doing and if one thing slips up, you need to have backups in place to at least keep the water flowing or keep the oxygen running until you can fix the problem,” he said. “When there is a new challenge with water quality, something that I haven’t experienced yet, or maybe I have some fish starting to die, I can bring in some of our Extension educators to diagnose what’s going on. You need a network to help answer questions about the water quality, what we can change, what we can add. I add baking soda to the water every day to keep the pH up. I’ve started adding peroxide to the water to help clean the water and keep the oxygen levels up. There are different things you learn along the way, and a lot of it you’ve got experience to have the insight and the understanding to be able to fix it.”

Ultimately, Freedom Fish Farms allows Gram to be close to home with his wife and their nine children, while providing food and stocking fish for Ohioans, enjoying the challenge all the while.

“I love creating new things and I’ve got to work on this facility all of the time,” Gram said. “New ideas come to me on how to do things and the biggest part is I’m close to home. It’s right here in my backyard with my family.”

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