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Starting a fish farm can bring profit to homeowners

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP)--Plenty of country homeowners are looking for ways to make extra cash from their extra acres.

One answer could be to turn a pond or a spare barn into an aquaculture operation. It can take less than $10,000 to start raising fish on a small scale, and the payoff from a side business can add up to $10,000 to $20,000 a year, Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service educators say.

But relatively few Hoosier farmers have ventured into the aquaculture field, partly because it takes research and experimentation to learn how to raise fish. The state's 47 aquaculture operations sold nearly $3.2 million in fish in 2002, according to the most recent Census of Agriculture. Aquaculture contributed only a tiny portion of the nearly $4.8 billion in agricultural products Hoosier farmers sold that year.

John and Julie Topsoglou started raising tilapia in their Roanoke basement about five years ago. That evolved into Midwest Fish Hatcheries, the business they own with partner Malcolm Albersmeyer. The fish farm, now located in a barn southwest of Fort Wayne, will be ready to supply thousands of young fish each week to other aquaculture businesses beginning later this year, John Topsoglou said.

Midwest Fish Hatcheries would like to form a cooperative with local farmers who would raise the tilapia to eating size, John Topsoglou said. His firm would take care of hatching fish eggs and supplying young fish, called fingerlings, to farmers in the cooperative. He envisions the members sharing the costs of hatching and raising fish. If enough farmers joined, the group could supply grocery stores or sell value-added products such as smoked fish.

"I think it's a perfect gateway for us to grow," he said.

The Topsoglous initially invested about $10,000 to set up 14 fish tanks in their basement, Julie Topsoglou said. It costs about $1,000 to start an aquaculture business with one tank.

Aquaculture businesses can be a variety of sizes, which makes the field a good fit for part-time farmers, said Gonzalee Martin, agriculture and natural resources educator at the Purdue University Extension service's Allen County office. Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility in central Indiana spent less than $10,000 to set up an aquaculture operation that raises 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of fish a year, he said.

Farmers who decide to start aquaculture businesses have to market their own products, said Kwamena Quagrainie, aquaculture marketing specialist for the Purdue Extension service. Fish can be raised as food or bait. Other aquaculture operations raise ornamental or game fish to stock ponds, he said. Farmers should seek out potential clients before establishing a business.

"You can't just go into it," Quagrainie said. "You have to be sure of your market."

Fish farmers do not make a large profit by raising fish for the food market, Quagrainie said. Farmers can widen their profit margins if they hatch their own fish, rather than paying a hatchery for a supply of young fish, he said.

Martin recommends farmers start small until they learn how to raise fish and cultivate buyers for the product. But even a side aquaculture business can generate $10,000 to $20,000 in annual sales, he said.

"The opportunity is there if they're willing to put in the effort," he said.

The Topsoglous and Albersmeyer have invested at least $100,000 in their business, John Topsoglou said. He and Albersmeyer work full-time at the General Motors Corp. truck plant in Allen County and run the hatchery during their off-hours. They check on the tilapia frequently to ensure the tropical fish are kept warm and to check on any eggs the fish have laid.

So far, Midwest Fish Hatcheries has not sold many fish on a commercial basis. The business experimented with raising perch, a cold-water fish, before realizing that they would be better off farming tilapia, which can be farmed indoors year-round, John Topsoglou said.

Midwest Fish Hatcheries expects to have a consistent supply of all-male fingerlings to sell within six months. Male tilapia can fetch more money because they are larger than the female fish and have more meat, he said.

Northeast Indiana needs a full-time aquaculture operation to generate more local interest in the field, John Topsoglou said.

At some point, the industry will reach a tipping point and more farmers will invest in full-time aquaculture businesses, Quagrainie said. Most of the industry's slow growth now comes from small businesses, and he expects that to continue for the time being.

"It's not like you have huge investments coming into the industry," he said. "We are not at that point yet."

Date: 5/31/06


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