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Fish Farming Finds Favour Over Pigs

MISSOURI - Former pig producer Ellis Dieckhoff has abandoned hogs in favour of fish. He has converted his pig production buildings into a hatchery for bluegill, which he sells as bait fish - and it's proved a good move.

After raising hogs on his family farm his whole life, Dieckhoff left the pork industry nine years ago due to low prices. When he took over the farm from his father in 1987, hogs sold for about 40 cents per pound. When he got out in 1999, he sold his sows and fat hogs for just 8 cents per pound.

"We just couldn't handle the price anymore," he said. "We thought we could withstand the ups and downs of the cycle, but we couldn't. It never cycled back."

Dieckhoff leased his hog buildings for a few years, and then they sat empty for three years. In 2004, he got the idea to raise fish and started researching options.

"It's just another thing I was trying to make the building pay for itself and generate some income," he said.

Before he knew there was a bait fish industry, Dieckhoff looked at raising fish for food. Weber helped him find potential food fish markets in the Kansas City area. Crystal Weber, University of Missouri Extension community development specialist in Blue Springs, helped him explore the options.

Attractive Bait

Fish raised for food are expensive to produce, however, and he had read that fish could be raised for bait at much lower cost. He learned about bluegill research at Lincoln University and worked with a Lincoln aquaculture specialist to develop indoor hatchery methods.

Diversifying is what farmers are being encouraged to do to safeguard their farms and communities, said Ms Weber. She specialises in local food systems and helping farmers find markets for their products.

"Diversifying allows him to get income throughout the year and decreases his level of risk," she added.

In 2006, Weber helped Dieckhoff apply for a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant. The US Department of Agriculture grants aim to promote sustainable farming, foster sustainable communities and preserve rural heritage by helping farmers diversify.

Dieckhoff won $6,000, the maximum amount available through the SARE program. He got the grant because fish farming was unique, and the funds would strengthen his family farm. It covered half his set up costs for the new enterprise.

Spawning in Nurseries

Dieckhoff now uses two former hog barns as a nursery, where he spawns the fish, and a hatchery, where he grows the fingerlings to 4 or 5 inches before selling them to the aquarium industry as bait. There have been challenges, but now the market is so good he can't keep up with demand, he said.

He initially planned to raise fish all year, but he learned the fish will not spawn between November and March.

But raising fish inside fools with Mother Nature.

"There are days when all these tubs will be full of spawn, but three days later I come in and three-quarters of them are dead. Like any other new project, there was and still is a huge learning curve that we are dealing with," said Mr Dieckhoff.

He continues to grow row crops, but they only provide seasonal income and high grain prices have made row crops highly competitive. This spring he plans to experiment with outdoor ponds. He still has interest in the food fish market but the biggest obstacles will be cost and the difficulty of reliably producing a quality product - much the same as pig production.

Ellen Hardy

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