Three Generations Work to Create a Farm Career
The Hopkins and Richards families could be telling a much different story if they had invested in another form of wildlife in 2007. But rather than starting a whitetail deer farm, they built a fish farm that now consists of four ponds and a harvest of large mouth bass in demand by customers at New York City’s live fish markets.
Loren Hopkins, his son-in-law Jim Richards and grandson Jaden Richards have taken their mutual love of wildlife, hunting and fishing and turned it into a part-time enterprise that Jaden hopes one day to grow into a full-time career.
“I’ve been around hunting and fishing my whole life, so to do it every day would be really enjoyable,” said 16-year-old Jaden, a student at Badger High School.
Right now, Jaden is focused on high school where he participates in cross county, track and field, and basketball, but he’s starting to think about business school to learn about how to grow the operation into something that could sustain his salary full-time as he gets older.
The Hopkins/Richards family has found fish farming is one business you learn mostly by trial-and-error. Each year, they’ve become increasingly better at ensuring their 3-4 inch fingerlings grow into healthy 1 1/2 – 2 pound mature fish within 18 months.
“We go by what we see,” said Jim, explaining how they hand feed using “floating feed” in order to track what the fish are eating. The feed contains 42% protein from soybean and fish meal.
And every member of the family agrees that feeding time is one of the most enjoyable parts of the daily farming operation. Farrah Richards (Jim’s wife, Loren’s daughter) says she can often hear the fish jumping to the top of the water for their feeding from the house about 1/2 mile away.
“To me, it’s like popcorn to see and hear the fish [come to the top of the water to eat],” said Barb Hopkins, Loren’s wife.
“They’ll follow you around the pond waiting to be fed,” said Jaden describing the wake as they anticipate the food being spread across the water.
The water conditions are critical to keeping the fish hungry. They eat best when the water temperature is around 58-64 degrees. And water quality is a key factor for their health. Like with soil conditions, nitrogen and phosphorus must be controlled, and oxygen levels have to be maintained. Aerators in the bottom of each pond keep the water circulating and add oxygen to the water. In the hot summer months when the fish will keep low in the water, the aerators keep the top layer of water cool to encourage them to swim upwards for feeding.
“Water supply is the most important factor,” said Jim. “Not everybody can do it because of that.”
Morningstar Farms has the water supply and could potentially expand the ponds to include another 10 acres. Today, the operation remains a part-time “hobby” that supplements their 550 acre grain and beef farm and off-farm employment. But the family believes with the right kind of effort and investment it could support the livelihood of at least one member of their family.
“If all this work benefits Jaden’s future, then it’s totally worth it,” said Loren, who is quick to add, “if that’s what he ultimately decides he wants to do.”
Throughout the year, the bulk of the work on the operation is related to feeding and monitoring pond water quality. But the most labor intensive part is the Fall harvest. The harvest of these 1 1⁄2-2 pound bass involves dragging a 200 pound net to corral the fish into a corner of the pond. From there, they use hand nets to net the fish out of that area into floating cages. The fish stay in these cages for 2-3 days to clean themselves out. Finally, the day they leave the farm, they hand-net the fish out of the cages, weigh them in groups in a laundry-type basket and then put them on a tank truck. This process takes many family members and a number of friends who keep asking to return year after year for the experience of the fish harvest. Jim’s dad even comes to help out.
“We certainly are a family unit, and when the kids got married, it just became a bigger family,” said Barb, grandmother to 13. She says with the harvest, it’s a case of “many hands make light work.”
All but one of Loren and Barb’s children and one adult grandchild have homes on the family farm. One daughter, Brooke and her husband Adam Cunningham live in Virginia where he is currently serving in the Navy.
In addition to family, they’re thankful to have neighbors who help them learn and pitch in during harvest. One friend is a professional diver and serves an important role in keeping things moving and fixing the pond aerators if something goes wrong.
Another local fish farmer, Jason Kibler, has been a mentor to the family as they’ve learned the business, and Jaden hopes to continue learning from what Kibler is already doing right. Plus, he has an indoor tank component that Jaden would eventually like to add to his operation to hatch his own fingerlings.
There are about 200 permitted fish farms in the state of Ohio, according to Laura Tui with Ohio State University.