Adventures in fish farming: Crystal Bridge Farm

I recently took my first trip to a fish farm, a catfish farm to be specific. And I really enjoyed every minute of it. For me, a Kentucky resident, I never knew that there were fish farms and a whole world of aquaculture here in my home state, along with many other places in the U.S. I think of coasts as the hot spots for bringing in seafood, but I have gotten quite an education on the subject. So while I had been contemplating this, I found the article below (by Helen E. McKinney) and I had to share. It's about a Kentucky fish farm.

Up until nine years ago, Rocky Allen had never heard of tilapia. In fact he didn't know how to raise any kind of fish - how much to feed them, how fast they multiply, that oxygen level in the water has to be constantly checked. But he had a pond and thought, 'Why not make a little extra money by raising fish?'

Having been disabled in a logging accident, Rocky, 54, thought this would be a way for him and his wife Tammy to extend their income utilizing their six acres of land in Ballardsville, KY. He contacted Kentucky State University and got started on what has become a very profitable business.

The university, which is becoming known for its aquaculture research, told him about tilapia, a very hearty fish. The importation of farm-raised tilapia into the United States began on a commercial scale in 1992 and has steadily grown in popularity since then, both for farmers like the Allens and the consumer.

At the time Rocky didn't consider his property a very good piece of land, one that he could build a farm on. It contained a large ravine and the only flat place was in the back. "I had to build a pond just to have a driveway into it," said Rocky. He converted this pond for fish farming, christening the property Crystal Bridge Farm. But to get into the farm raised fish market was not without expense. He also had to pay for the ponds, stock them, and install electricity and aerators. Paddlewheels are used to keep the water oxygen level circulating throughout the small ponds so the fish will not smother and die. Maintaining the correct oxygen level is the key to producing a successful product for the Allens.

Rocky didn't do a lot of research before getting into the fish business, but said he wished that he had. "I'm the kind of fellow that flies by the cuff," he said. Rocky has learned from trial and error and has expanded his business to include the production of fresh-water shrimp as well.

There are so many variables to consider when first starting out or beginning a new crop each year, said Rocky, that sometimes it seemed as if he hadn't done any research at all. Water temperature and weather are two big factors that influence crop production, the latter being something he can not control.

Even the fish and shrimp are different from year to year, he said. No matter how much research he has done or how well he has prepared, something like a change in water temperature can make him feel like he has to begin all over again, trying to figure out ways to keep the fish and shrimp alive. "It's a thrill to get started every year," said Rocky. But as the months wear on he still wonders if everything he is doing will work and produce a good, health crop.   

The Allens are originally from Southern West Virginia and came to the area 22 years ago. They first lived in Henry County, then moved to the land where they now raise catfish and shrimp. Rocky had raised cattle on the property before building his home on it 12 years ago.

Rocky compared raising catfish to raising cattle. They have to be fed the right amount of protein, just as cattle require the right amount of protein in their food, he said. The Allen's property has evolved to include four ponds, which were built to hold fish and shrimp. One pond in the front of his house is the water source for the other three ponds.

Shrimp occupy the bottom of the ponds and the fish float over them. The fish are a great water quality indicator of any problems in the water, said Rocky. It's not uncommon for anyone raising shrimp to also raise tilapia. "I raise shrimp according to what the market wants," said Rocky.  


"Everybody does things different," said Rocky. "Every farm is different and every pond is different. People want a fresh product - you want to eat what you know." And the Allens stand by their product. The couple still has three-fourths of the customers that they started out with. They only sell to individuals, not restaurants. About ninety percent of their business is within surrounding counties, including Henry, Carroll, Shelby, and the Louisville and Frankfort areas. 

When they began the business, Rocky went out and bought 3,000-4,000 fish, not realizing just how fast they would multiply. "I didn't know how much to feed them, and I didn't have any customers at first," he said. They put out a "Fresh Fish" sign on the weekends and gradually drew a loyal customer base, selling between 20 to 25 pounds of fish a weekend. The business grew by word of mouth, especially through the generosity of neighbors who spread the word for the Allens. A family member would usually follow up with the customers, learning their likes and dislikes about the fish. 

When her husband approached her with the idea of raising fish and shrimp, Tammy said, "I thought he was crazy. Here's more work for me to do." But since then, she has become used to the extra work, as has their oldest daughter and son-in-law, Bridgette and Matt Sandusky, who often lend a helping hand.

Tammy is responsible for feeding the stock before going to work everyday. The fish must be fed high protein pellets four times a day and the shrimp twice a day. Rocky has bought fish food locally at such places as Southern States and as far away as Louisiana. He tries to buy feed in Kentucky, many times getting shrimp feed from Bagdad Roller Mills in Shelby County.

At feeding time, "They're like piranhas, jumping to the top of the water for
food," said Tammy. The best part of raising the fish to her is their rapid
growth rate. In two months they are big enough to fillet, she said. Rocky said he often gets other people to help out on the filleting process, while Tammy packages the fish for sale.

The fish is brought in from different places, said Tammy. They have traveled as far as New York to purchase quality brood stock. The shrimp is usually bought closer to home from an individual in Frankfort. The Allens get somewhat of a break from their work, as the actual process from beginning to end lasts only from July through October each year.

"It's a lot more work than people think," said Rocky. If his paddlewheel stops turning during the night without his knowledge, he could loose his income. Although he checks it first thing every morning and before going to bed at night, Rocky said his neighbors also keep a constant check on it for him as they come and go past his property.

Battling the elements is a major concern for the Allens. The fish can't stand a temperature blow because it stresses them so bad, he said. Great care must be taken around the clock to monitor the fish and shrimp and manage the ponds, to produce a healthy crop suitable for consumption. The slightest change in the infiltration system or sudden temperature change can signal disaster for the Allens.

Since tilapia and shrimp are living animals, raising them is a risky financial endeavor. "I lost a whole pond of shrimp last year," said Rocky. "It was hard on my profit." A lot of hands pitch in to produce the amount of fish and shrimp sold from Crystal Bridge Farm. "We raise a good product," said Rocky. "We eat it ourselves."


related topics: fish, farming, aquaculture

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