Small-Scale Fish Farming a Growing Niche in Southern Va.

10/6/2012 7:00 AM
By Andrew Jenner Virginia Correspondent

Virginia State University Promotes Freshwater Aquaculture Program

DOSWELL, Va. — The freshwater prawn season lasts from early June to early October in Southside Virginia, when pond temperatures are warm enough to allow nearly invisible, 60-day-old juveniles to grow to 10- or 12-count prawns — meaning 10 or 12 to the pound.

After catching them in nets and plopping them in an ice bath for five minutes, farmers can sell the prawns pond-side at about $10 per pound.

That makes every single 10-count prawn the equivalent of a dollar bill floating in the water, said Brian Nerrie, an aquaculture Extension specialist at Virginia State University. And with the cost of production at somewhere between $3.50 and $4 per pound, prawns can provide a profitable enterprise to farmers willing to try out the relatively novel product, he said.

Nerrie, who ran an exhibit on freshwater aquaculture at the Virginia State Fair this week, said the state's prawn industry has gone from practically nothing to approaching $1 million in gross sales over the past decade.

Over that same period, Virginia State University has been working with a group of aqua-farmers to develop a new, small-scale freshwater aquaculture industry that can offer farmers an opportunity to diversify. Much of the effort has been focused on the state's economically depressed Southside region, where irrigation ponds on former tobacco farms lend themselves to conversion for fish or prawn farming.

Many of the farmers who've begun raising freshwater prawns are affiliated with the Virginia Aqua-Farmers Network, or VAN, a producer group that has begun marketing several different products under its brand, the Virginia Natural Fish Co. In addition to prawns, the 20 producer-members of VAN also raise and market farmed catfish and rainbow trout, and plan to add hybrid striped bass next year.

"To be successful, there had to be strength in numbers," said VAN Chairman Lynn Blackwood, who began raising catfish and rainbow trout more than a decade ago on his farm in Meherrin, Va.

By early 2007, Blackwood and a group of producers supported by Virginia State University began developing a business plan, and that May, nearly 20 producers met for the first VAN meeting. Grants from the USDA and Virginia Tobacco Commission funded early feasibility studies and allowed VAN to hire a marketing manager.

The group now sells its fish and prawns at a number of farmers markets, including Williamsburg, Charlottesville and Lynchburg, and is working on reaching contract agreements with restaurants that will allow members to increase production.

VAN also promotes its products through events like a prawn boil and fish fry in Chatham, Va., held last month.

"You have to find the right markets to make money," said John Hofmeyer, VAN vice-chairman, adding that a current obstacle to restaurant sales is finding a price that suits for both the restaurant and the producers.

He also cautioned that, like any farming venture, there's risk involved: "If you don't do it right and you kill all (your fish), you've lost a lot of money," Hofmeyer said, speaking from unfortunate personal experience.

Hofmeyer raises hybrid striped bass and rainbow trout on his farm in Williamsburg, Va.

He and Blackwood said the group is seeking new producers, and that it plans to continue increasing production in the future, reflecting strong demand from its farmers market customers and the group's confidence that larger contracts with restaurants are soon in order.

Hofmeyer estimated that about half the small-scale, commercial fish farmers in Southside Virginia are now affiliated with VAN, while others are selling their products independently.

Back at the state fair, Nerrie said that he expects small-scale aquaculture as a whole to continue growing in Virginia, as consumers look for alternative sources of locally raised protein, and as existing producers continue to meet success raising and selling their fish and prawns.

"If people (have) successful operations, neighbors want to do it," Nerrie said.

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