So much of mainstream culture, the concept of a farm is still closely defined by plastic preschool play sets: red barn, happy chicken, smiling cow, circular pig and a farmer in overalls and a straw hat. While thereâs nothing inherently dishonest about this image (my own barns are red, my chickens are happy and I do wear a straw hat now and again while working), thereâs just so much more to a modern farm than this Green Acres getup suggests.
Where are the converted food-grade barrels catching rainwater for plants and animals? Why not include solar-powered electric fencing to keep the round little pig in its pasture? And whereâs the aquaculture operation?
What, you donât have an aquaculture setup on your farm? Well, youâre not alone, despite most farms having the most basic necessity for growing fish: water (you know, farm ponds). If you arenât taking full advantage of private waters on your land or have extra space you could use to cultivate fish, read on to learn more about aquaculture options for small and hobby farmers.
Put Your Ponds to Use
A farm pond is a staple of country living, and the reasons are as old-fashioned as working the land itself: Ponds provide drinking water for livestock, a collection area for rainfall, an available source of water in case of fire and a cool place to frolic on a hot day.
Of course, fishing is another use for a body of water, and grabbing a pole and heading to the back 40 for a day of casting lines is as fun now as it was in the days of Huckleberry Finn. But beyond an excuse to spend a day in quiet contemplation beside a cooler of libations, a properly stocked fishpond can be a viable source of protein cultivation for a familyâs personal needs or limited commercial value.
âIf someone has existing water on the farm, there are ways to go into aquaculture in a family or hobby-farm-type level,â says James Tidwell, coordinator for aquaculture programs at Kentucky State Universityâs Aquaculture Research Center. âYouâve got cage culture; youâve got different species that you can raise and harvest for family farm use. As with a lot of farming, itâs going to require scale to do it on a commercial level. But on a home-use level, if you have existing waters, you can harvest some of the fish that are self-supporting in a balanced population. Or you could maybe even add a cage of fish.â
But before looking up a fish-stocking service and ordering from a catalog (like the previous owner of my farm who once purchased catfish for one of the ponds, only to collect their bodies from the surface after the spring thaw), take time to consult experts about whatâs right for your pond and region.
âThereâs a lot of literature available for free from the extension programs for each state,â Tidwell says. âProbably the best start is to contact your local or regional land-grant university, your extension service, and tell them your interest. With fish being cold-blooded, itâs very different in different parts of the country as to whatâs a suitable fish, what fish can do well and even what fish is allowed.â
Tidwell and Kentucky State University worked with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Services to develop a series of web-based pages titled âManaging Your Farm Pondâ to assist the stateâs landowners in determining how many fish of what species they can effectively raise in their ponds. While other state-specific resources are available for other regions, Tidwell has a good starting point for prospective fish-keepers looking to establish cost estimates.
âProbably the classic and sustainable self-reproducing population is a balanced bass/bluegill farm,â he says. âYou can harvest 50 or 100 pounds per acre, and itâs actually better for the pond that way. So [start with] a balanced bass/bluegill pond, then you can add some catfish into that. Thereâs plenty of room for that.â
While farm ponds can provide a food source for a family or very small community, Tidwell is quick to point out that the commercial possibilities are limitedâthough they do exist.
âMost hobby-type folks would want to be selling whole product if they possibly could,â he says. âThat way you donât have to get into processing and you donât have to get into all the health department regulations that are involved. As long as you donât put a knife to it, if itâs live or fresh on ice, there are no processing regulations you have to deal with. If you get a propagation permit from Fish and Wildlife, you get a transportation permit at the same time.â
Tidwell puts the cost of a propagation permit in Kentucky somewhere close to $50.
âEven if itâs a classic bass/bluegill-type pond, you have a propagation permit from Fish and Wildlife and list âbass/bluegill/catfishâ on there, you should be able to sell them,â he says. âThat would just be considered a low-density aquaculture-type enterprise.â
But if your farm sits on the banks of a river or creek, the chances of a commercial operation increase exponentially, right? âNo,â Tidwell says. âThatâs an easy, short answer. You canât raise fish in public waters. Iâve got frontage on the Kentucky River, and fish would grow great in a cage in that slow-moving water. But thatâs considered public water, and you canât raise private fish in public water. You canât harvest public fish and sell them for profit without a commercial fishing license.â
This is, of course, the law in Kentucky; check with your state officials about what you can and canât do.
Farms need to have income, however, for the old rule that farms should cover operations and new(ish) requirements for farm number registration. While raising fish for profit shouldnât constitute the bulk of your farm plan, a farm pond might provide enough supplemental income to buy a bag of chicken feed now and again.
At farmers markets in central Kentuckyâhundreds of miles from the closest oceanâpeople buy fresh saltwater shrimp thanks to an innovative program out of Kentucky State Universityâs Aquaculture Research Center.
âWe do freshwater and saltwater prawns,â says program coordinator James Tidwell. âThe freshwater prawns are best suited to a pond-type production; itâs like a fruit crop, a once-a-year crop. Theyâre stocked in early June and, depending on the weather, normally theyâre harvested about mid-September. âBut weâre also doing saltwater shrimp in tanks indoors in what we call a bioflock system.â
The program recently sold several hundred pounds at local farmers markets over a weekend in early fall.
If shrimp can grow in Kentucky lakes, should you consider decapods for your farm pond? Not necessarily.
âYouâd have to be a pretty dedicated hobbyist,â Tidwell says. âTo get those guys out of there, you have to drain the pond. So for most hobby-type situations, thatâs not something youâd want to do.â
Still, local shrimp in the middle of Kentucky is pretty cool.
While few things beat a relaxing day of fishing, the activity is really more recreational than sustainable. If you want to raise fish to provide food for yourself and your family, cage culture is a better option than whiling the day away with a pole.
Cage culture is, put simply, raising large amounts of fish within the intensive environment of a floating cage. The movement of fish within the cage creates currents that filter clean water inside, and the yields can be pretty impressive: Itâs possible to harvest more than 100 pounds of fish in a cage that measures 3 by 1 Â˝ by 1 Â˝ feet.
While you should consider certain factors, such as local laws and species best suited to your area, cage culture is an effective way to grow food in a farm pond. Research the topic further to determine feasibility for your region and personal situation.
No Pond? No Problem
If you like the idea of growing your own fish but donât have a farm pond on your property, a backyard aquaponics system might be just the thing for you. Youâve probably seen aquaponics in action before. Plants are grown in a nonsoil media (clay pebbles are often used), with nutrients supplied by water pumped to and from a tank filled with fish. Fish waste helps to produce healthy, quick-growing plants (green, leafy vegetables are most common) and fish can be harvested at the end of a growing season for a freezer full of healthy proteins.
âAquaponics really started on a small, grassroots level,â says Janelle Hager, a research associate at Kentucky State Universityâs Aquaculture Research Center. âPeople really wanted to have food security and started caring about where their food came from and generally wanting to grow it themselves. Itâs very popular on this backyard, small-scale level, and the research is really just trying to catch up to it.â
The research center has a variety of systems on display for interested parties to view, including simple setups and full-scale greenhouse installations, but for Hager, aquaponicsâ appeal is still in those small, backyard setups.
âMy passion is really making it available to folks,â she says. âIâve set up probably seven or eight of these for friends and family. We just harvested, like, 75 fish for my aunt the other day.â
Adds Tidwell, âThere are a lot of aquaponics options, probably more than pond-based for the hobby-type scale. There are all these things where you can use those IBC [intermediate bowl container] totes that they move Coke syrup and stuff in. You can cut those, flip them over and make an aquaponic system out of one.â
The system Tidwell describes is a common, low-effort method of raising fish that, at its simplest, can be built and set up in a suburban backyard. And, aside from getting an IBC tote (you can find them used on classified sites such as Craigslist, but make sure the previous contents wonât cause problems for you or your fish), the only issues to consider are feeding the fish, maintaining proper water quality (do a web search for âFAO aquaponicsâ to read more) and timing; you can raise fish only for as long as the weather will sustain them outside.
âOne of the biggest limiters here [in northern Kentucky] is that if you do an outdoor system, youâre only running it from late April to late September or early October,â Heger says. She quickly points out that, while a variety of fish can survive in an IBC tote system and provide nutrients for a vegetable crop, the range of edible fish is pretty limited.
âThere are alternatives like koi, stuff like that,â she says, âbut in order to actually get a fish that you want to filet and eat at the end of it, tilapiaâs pretty much your only option.â
Whether youâre growing a cage of bass in a farm pond or raising tilapia in an IBC tote, farm-based aquaculture operations might just be worth exploring as a component of your agricultural plan. Requiring less maintenance than traditional livestock, fish provide a healthy, hearty protein option for family meals. And, if you can make it work, aquaculture could even add some revenue to your farming operation.