Despite potential, Midwest farms struggle to market fish

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — When drastic increases in food costs spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic left Andrew Caplinger struggling to find fresh catfish for his restaurants, he decided to try an “experimental” solution — cultivate his own.

In the coming months, Indianapolis restaurant chain Caplinger’s Fresh Catch Seafood will begin sourcing the second most popular menu item from fish ponds on its 28-acre farm in southern Indiana. The goal is to produce up to half of the 800 to 1,000 pounds of catfish fillets served weekly in restaurants.


“I’ve never done anything like this – I’ve sold dead fish all my life,” he said. “It’s difficult, and it can be risky. But assuming things go well and these fish grow as they should, we won’t have to consider raising our store prices again for some time.

It’s a move that could increase the local appetite for fish, Caplinger said. But even with increasing consumption of fish and seafood in the United States, the number of aquaculture farms in the Midwest is declining, and many fish producers say they are struggling to get their product to consumers in the region.

Midwestern states make up one-fifth of the country’s land but contain about one-third of all US farms, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Although experts say the region could be a major aquaculture producer, the number of aquaculture farms in the Midwest has fallen to about 271 from 336 a decade ago.

That could be because the region has historically relied on wild-caught seafood, said Amy Shambach, aquaculture marketing associate with Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. Seafood produced in the Midwest must also compete with cheaper imported seafood.

“Our input costs are a bit higher than in other places, and (that) is contributing to some of the slow growth,” Shambach said.

Stagnant fish farming in the Midwest aquaculture industry has national implications, Shambach said. With global seafood consumption expected to rise by 100-170 billion pounds by 2030, the growing seafood trade deficit means more fish will need to be farmed, opening the door for farmers around the world. Midwest to meet demand.

Joseph Morris, former director of the North Central Regional Aquaculture Center at Iowa State University, said growing the industry was a challenge, noting issues with marketing, fish processing and labor costs. students.

“The big hurdle to overcome – how can they produce a product, economically, to meet consumer needs while remaining in business?” he said. “How do you reach the growing market of people who want to eat fish?”

Mike Searcy, owner of a trout farm in Seymour, Indiana, said the state of Hoosier — one of only two in the Midwest to report an increase in farms over the past decade — does not have no central processing facility to gut and fillet harvested fish. He sends most of his fish to Kentucky for processing and distribution.

“We have demand from our local customers, but the biggest hurdle is the lack of processing, bridging that gap between farmer and restaurateur. It’s holding us back,” said Searcy, who plans to have a processing facility on his own farm. . “When we’re competing with foreign markets and much cheaper labor, they can net groceries much cheaper than I can.”

Shambach said the lack of processing available in Indiana only allows a handful of Indiana aquaculture farms to produce for food companies. Instead, most fish raised in the state are sold alive to Asian food markets in Indianapolis, Chicago, New York and Toronto.

Still, Morris said, fish farmers are competing to grow their businesses and increase their profits – which could succeed if producers could better market their fish.

“A new generation of people are eating more fish and asking more often, ‘Where does my food come from?’ That’s where the Midwest comes in,” Morris said.

One solution for farmers could be recirculating aquaculture systems, which allow fish and shrimp to be raised in tank-based systems. The method gives growers control of water quality – often preventing fish disease and the need for antibiotics – and allows various species to be farmed year-round in landlocked areas.

The method is costly, however, excluding many small and medium farmers. Searcy, whose farm runs entirely on technology, warned that the operation is also entirely dependent on electricity. Environmental activists argue that recirculating aquaculture systems require abundant water resources and they express concerns about waste disposal.

Tyler Isaac, aquaculture program manager for the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, said that with sustainably sourced fish feed and proper precautions, recirculating systems could lead to more fish farms in the Midwest.

“It’s always a trade-off game, but I think at the end of the day recirculation systems are a really good step forward,” Isaac said, adding that renewable energy sources would also make these operations more environmentally friendly. “The development of an aquaculture industry in a place like the Midwest is a good thing. It just has to be done with proper safeguards.

Morris said other emerging technologies — such as AquaBounty’s genetically modified Atlantic salmon grown in Indiana, which grow faster and are less susceptible to disease — could also be “very attractive to growers,” although it could be “several years” before similar genetically modified fish become mainstream.

“In terms of aquaculture in the Midwest as a whole, growth has to be tied to the exploitation of food fish. That’s where your market is – a consumer base,” Morris said. “There are only a limited number of ponds to stock in the Midwest, a limited number of anglers. But there are consumers who want to eat more and more fish in the Midwest. We have to focus on that.

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Casey Smith is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow Smith on Twitter.

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