GREEN BAY — Wisconsin aquaculture is languishing, said Ken Webb, a research associate at UW-Green Bay.
“There are some pilot farms, some small farms here and there,” he said. “But when you think of catfish farms down in the Mississippi delta, you think of hundreds and thousands of acres of fish. Well, we don’t have that here.”
That soon could change, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale.
Armed with years of experience and a desire to succeed, Webb moved to Wisconsin from Texas last spring for the opportunity to work at UW-Green Bay and help build The Farmory. The goal is to create the state’s first commercial yellow perch hatchery in an intensive culture system.
Until recently, The Farmory was a dilapidated 20,000-square-foot building in the middle of an urban neighborhood near downtown Green Bay. For decades, the NeighborWorks-owned building housed a bottling plant and then an armory. Restoration efforts are ongoing, with the aim of getting the hatchery operational by early 2019.
“We are working to create a world-class center of excellence for the advancement of aquaculture and food, nutrition and fish science,” said Paul Linzmeyer, The Farmory board co-chair.
The Farmory aims to raise 100,000 yellow perch and walleye fingerlings (4 to 6 inches) next year. The five-year goal is 500,000 yellow perch fingerlings. The number of yellow perch in Lake Michigan is declining, Webb said, meaning the majority consumed in Wisconsin are imported from Canada.
Yellow perch fingerlings raised at The Farmory would be sold to producers, who in turn would continue growing them and then market the larger fish for profit. Since The Farmory is an indoor facility, abnormal weather conditions like last spring’s mid-April blizzard that swept across Wisconsin wouldn’t affect the fingerlings.
Webb, who’s affectionately called “the fish guy” at The Farmory, said some Wisconsin universities are well versed in raising yellow perch, but he added their operations are geared toward education or research, rather than commercial production.
“We’re trying to be the first step up in that chain to go to full commercial scale,” Webb said. “Because a producer isn’t going to want 1,000 or 5,000 fish. A producer wants 100,000 fish or 200,000 fish to fill up ponds. We’re trying to be that very first intensive production system that’s able to meet that need and get those fingerlings to them.”
Establishing a hatchery isn’t easy, and neither is raising the required number of fingerlings, Webb said. That often prevents producers from even considering aquaculture.
“That’s where we come in,” Webb said. “Once you have fingerlings, which is what we will take care of by removing the labor-intensive part for them, there are plenty of people out there who may have 1 or 2 acres of water on their property who could easily put in fish as a second or third crop on their farm.
“And if we can get a supply chain going while we’re working, that will start to fuel local people to say, ‘Hey, look, they have fingerlings and I can get them and they don’t cost an arm and a leg and I can make money in a single season cropping these fish.’
“It’s something producers will be able to afford because we’re not-for-profit. We just want to sell these fish and pay our costs and that’s it. We’re trying to seed the industry, and that’s something that will help everybody.”
Webb compared the process with the dairy industry by saying, “Basically, it’s like going out and buying calves. They get a batch of fingerlings, put them in their pond, they put a deer corn feeder with sacks of feed in it over the pond, and come November they collect their fish.”
To further support producers, The Farmory intends to off-season the yellow perch over time so they spawn in November. Then, come spring, instead of starting with eggs the producers have 4- to 6-inch fish, giving them a full growing season to reach a harvestable size.
On Webb’s end of things, the biggest challenge will be getting the yellow perch to eat pellets.
“That’s what kills you — if we have to feed live feed to perch, that’s where the cost goes through the roof,” Webb said. “Yellow perch, it’s not easy to get them on prepared diets. And that’s really why they brought me in. My background is in marine fish, which is similar. They require weeks to months of live food being provided in the system, and you have to ween them over to a dry pellet.”
To help in the overall processes at the hatchery, Webb intends to implement self-cleaning systems, self-monitoring systems and automated systems — all of which have been used with marine fish.
UW-Green Bay also will maintain a research area within the hatchery portion of the building.
Fish raised at The Farmory will serve a dual purpose as they help with the facility’s vertical, soil-based aquaponics system. The Farmory already is selling its homegrown food to restaurants like The Cannery in Green Bay. Phase 2 of that aquaponics system is operational at West De Pere High School.
The Farmory Executive Director Claire Thompson said Wisconsin is a world leader in the dairy ag-tech industry, adding that those same skills can be used to grow a variety of crops in an urban setting.
“In this type of operation, a smart phone will be among the most-used tools of the farmer,” Thompson said. “That is very attractive to youth and young adults who care about their food and nutrition and are concerned about environmental sustainability and quality-of-life issues.
“Many have never had the opportunity to work in rural areas where agriculture jobs exist, and they crave a connection with how their food is produced. This is a very unique opportunity to cultivate the next generation of food producers, and do that in a venue and neighborhood that is close to home.”
For more information about The Farmory, visit www.farmory.org.