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Nothing fishy about potential for yellow perch in Wisconsin

Agri-View story

by Jane Fyksen

February 14, 2013 11:00 am  

In this land of dairy cattle and cash crops, David Northey raises yellow perch as one of the co-owners of Coolwater Farms LLC near Deerfield. There’s nothing fishy about the potential profitability of yellow perch production in Wisconsin, contends this aquaculture proponent.

From fry to fillet, his aim is to provide customers with a consistent quality product. Outdoor ponds are groundwater-fed from an over 800-foot-deep well on the farm. David says their farm-raised yellow perch don’t contain elevated levels of PCBs, mercury, chemicals or other pollutants that exist in many of the Great Lakes region waters.

Coolwater Farms (www.coolwaterfarms.com) sells live yellow perch eggs, fingerlings and fish that are well-suited for both pond/lake stocking and serious aquaculture production. Live fish sales and hauling are generally best done spring and fall, so high summer temperatures don’t stress the fish. The yellow perch are generally sold as “pellet-trained,” although David and his partners also have non-feed-trained fish available. Either type is suitable for pond/lake stocking purposes.

David also mentions they process their fish within 48 hours of harvest in order to provide restaurants and other customers with “a sweet and tender fillet every time,” versus important wild yellow perch that’s often held on ice sometimes for as long as 14 days prior to processing.

He says yellow perch fillets have less than 1 percent fat and are high in heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. There’s no detectable difference in the quality of their fillets, whether fresh or frozen for up to six months.

While David is the primary hands-on operator at Coolwater Farms, his co-owners are Jeff Malison, an avid fisherman who was formerly involved in aquaculture research at UW-Madison for more than 25 years. Today, Jeff is living in the Wisconsin’s northwoods, near Mercer. The other partners are Phil Vasby and Lowell Lund (Vasby Farms), formerly owners of an area grain elevator.

He and Jeff were graduate students together. They have been raising fish together since the early ‘80s on David’s family farm. They had dug 2 1/2-acre ponds and a bigger well. Today, the ponds contain game fish that are catch-and-release. In the ‘90s, they built the present perch-rearing operation located between Cambridge and Deerfield. Vasby Farms owned the land, which included an exceptionally deep well that the state had drilled to expand a minimum security prison but then abandoned the site.

Ponds were built in three stages. There are now 13 ponds – 20 acres of water – ranging from a half-acre to three acres in size. Their average depth is 5 to 6 feet. They are all “drainable,” and clay-lined. Well water can independently be delivered to each pond, along with air and electricity to each. In the winter, the larger ponds have a “trickle” of well water (10 to 15 gallons a minute) going into them. A 6-inch pipe in the water introduces air to the ponds 20 inches below the surface. Air bubbles up and pulls water to the bottom, turning the fish’s watery environment over so no oxygen stratification occurs. An area about the size of a large conference table stays open in the winter.

The perch are fed a commercial pelletized feed, which he blows into the ponds once a day from a homemade contraption – a hopper on a golf cart, a leaf blower and a 15-foot PVC-pipe arm. He hires three people part-time to help in the fish operation.

David sees strong demand for yellow perch in Wisconsin and other Great Lakes states. The traditional mainstay of the Friday-night fish fry, yellow perch used to be commercially fished in the Great Lakes, but that industry has faded. Yellow perch is, today, is a highly-sought-after high-end fish that isn’t being produced anywhere near the public’s appetite for them. The Coolwater Farms team is, in fact, willing to mentor would-be yellow perch raisers and is recruiting more people to become fish farmers. He’s convinced outdoor ponds are the way to go, so long as there’s a good source of water. Very little permitting is required.

The production year on a yellow perch fish farm begins in late March, when eggs are stripped out of selected females and inseminated. Five-hundred females produce 20,000 eggs apiece. “Ribbons” of fertilized eggs are hung on wires in a cattle stock tank for a couple weeks until they’re ready for hatching. Once hatched, the tiny fry are put in a pond that’s been seeded with a natural food source of zooplankton. No commercial manufacturer has been able to come up with a food particle small enough for yellow perch fry to eat. David and his partners have done a lot of hit-and-miss research on the feeding of fry, and have found one that works.

It takes about a month for the fish to get to an inch in size. He uses a 300-foot seine pulled by a tractor to catch them. Next they go to his “feed training facility,” two 30-foot cheese vats that are fed with well water warmed through a pipe running through one of the natural ponds. The feeder comes on every hour, delivering powdered krill in little bursts – something the tiny perch recognize as a food source. He can train 50,000 to eat at a time. It takes about four days. He feed trains in June and July and wants to have all the young perch in larger ponds by Aug. 1. Perch grow best in water that’s 68 to 72 degrees.

Next they go to micro-ponds covered with ginseng shade cloth. Those ponds are only a couple feet deep. The fish will double their weight (i.e. grow to 2 inches) before they are delivered to a regular pond (devoid of any existing population of older perch). A feeder shoots out food hourly and David feeds once daily with his feed cart. At any one time on the farm, he has yellow perch that are 1, 2 and 3 years old. Yellow perch are filleted when they’re 8 inches long, and sold mostly to local restaurants. Eight fish turned into butterfly fillets equate to a pound of consumable meat, which could sell at a farmer’s market for $14 a pound.

He also sells about 100,000 fish a year for pond-stocking, either to wholesalers or direct. There’s good demand for yellow perch for stocking.


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