Keith Sutton 2017-08-19 00:33:12
An inside look at Arkansas’ baitfish industry It’s not quite 6 a.m., but even in De Valls Bluff, a Delta farming community in Prairie County, people seem slow getting around on this June morning. Few are stirring. When I pull into a farm at the city limits, however, I find it bustling with activity. Trucks, tractors and forklifts race about. Equipment is being loaded, vehicles fueled, and supervisors are giving instructions for the day’s work. For Arkansas farmers, summer mornings often start this way. But this is no ordinary farm. There are no row crops, livestock or poultry. No fruits or vegetables to pick. No hay to bale or timber to cut. You won’t find the farm’s commodities in grocery stores, farmers markets, feed troughs or lumber yards. They wind up instead on fishermen’s hooks. This is Harry Saul’s Minnow Farm, one of the country’s oldest and largest baitfish operations. The farm’s primary crops are golden shiners, fathead minnows and orange-colored fatheads called rosy reds. Anglers use these baitfish to catch crappie, catfish, bass and other sportfish. If you use live minnows when fishing, chances are good the bait in your bucket came from Saul’s. The farm’s owners, James and Margie Saul and their son William, have invited me for an inside look at this fascinating operation. In the 1950s, James’ late father Harry made a living selling wild minnows he caught in the White River. “The problem was he couldn’t get a year-round supply,” James said. “So he and two brothers decided to raise minnows in ponds. Dad started with 10 acres and built seven ponds. He then bought 56 acres nearby, then 60 more. Today we have 100 ponds covering 1,100 acres.” Harry Saul wasn’t your run-of-the-mill minnow man. He was a pioneer in the baitfish industry, along with his brother Darrell and half brother Bob Treadway. Harry helped develop culture methods and markets that would lead to Arkansas becoming the world’s biggest producer of farm-raised baitfish. According to the USDA’s “2013 Census of Aquaculture,” Arkansas’ 23 baitfish farms (more than any state) had sales of $18,360,000 in 2013, or 62 percent of the U.S. total. Arkansas farmers produce 6 billion baitfish annually, with a $300 million to $350 million economic impact. Suitable physical factors allowed Arkansas to become the hub for baitfish production. “Soil in counties like Lonoke, Prairie and Craighead, where most baitfish farms are located, is ideal for holding water in ponds,” James said. “There’s also an adequate water supply, which is critical for growing fish. The things that enable Arkansas farmers to grow rice also work great for aquaculture.” Anglers pursue their favorite sportfish year-round, so raising and selling baitfish is a year-round business. Many minnows also go to feeder markets such as zoos and aquariums where the small fish are fed to other animals. “We stay busy seven days a week, January through December,” said Margie, who serves as chair of Arkansas Farm Bureau’s Aquaculture Division. “Some months are slower than others, but we’re feeding, seining, grading and transporting baitfish every day.” When I arrive, crews are seining minnows from ponds and loading them into trucks. These fish will be purged of food, graded by size and transported to out-of-state distributors. Some are destined for Texas on a truck I watch the workers load. Grading frames are pulled through concrete vats bristling with thousands of minnows. Then, when the right-size baitfish are corralled, they’re caught using hand-held dip nets, transferred to holding tanks and loaded in cool, aerated compartments on the fish truck. James and Margie drive similar but much larger trucks, delivering baitfish to dealers in 17 states, from New York to Louisiana. “Some distributors pick up their baitfish here,” said William, a full partner in the business. “But we have three trucks almost constantly on the road for deliveries. One truck runs our New York route 44-45 weeks a year, often multiple times each week. Without mom and dad driving, we couldn’t make ends meet.” Growing and selling baitfish presents many challenges. Adults spawn in April and May. Females lay eggs on special mats or beneath lengths of polypipe. These are then transferred to an indoor hatchery where the eggs are incubated. After hatching, the fry are moved to ponds where they are stocked at rates from 10,000 to 1.5 million per acre, depending on the size of baitfish desired. “Minnows reproduce only in spring, but we must have appropriately sized baitfish ready for sale year-round,” William said. “We do this by controlling fish density in each pond. With more fish per acre, the minnows remain smaller like those preferred for crappie fishing. Lower densities produce bigger baitfish like those bass anglers want. Controlling density and other factors assures we have the size fish our customers want every month.” Work never stops. Fish must be fed and kept disease-free. Water quality must be monitored. Aerators, pumps and other equipment must be kept working. Weeds must be controlled, ponds fertilized, levees mowed and fish-eating birds scared away. Fish farmers can’t control weather, but adverse conditions can have huge effects on minnow production and sales volume. For example, if inclement weather keeps anglers home for extended periods, they’re not buying bait, and sales suffer. If bad weather sets in, producing and harvesting minnows can be tough. The biggest challenges the Sauls and other baitfish growers face, however, involve regulatory issues. A 2016 study by the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff found substantial regulatory costs for Arkansas fish farmers. Together, the state’s baitfish and sportfish producers spend $7.3 million annually on regulatory compliance, an average of $260,000 per farm or $420 per acre. Money spent to comply with regulations regarding environmental management, legal/labor standards, fish health and interstate transport accounts for 18 percent of farm costs. Indirect costs associated with compliance include lost sales, increased manpower requirements, fish health testing and permit costs. Unfortunately, these financial burdens have caused many farms to close. In 2005, there were 257 baitfish farms in the U.S. Eight years later, there were 166. Arkansas fell from 51 baitfish farms covering 21,965 acres in 2005 to 23 farms on 12,891 acres in 2013. “Regulations hurt the industry tremendously,” Margie said. “For example, when the EPA began requiring special fuel tanks and inspections at mom-and-pop gas stations, many went out of business. Some had been selling bait for years to boost their income. James and I traveled through several states to visit bait shops and distributors that might be new customers, and many places were abandoned or converted into other businesses.” “We came home very discouraged,” James added. “We went to 17 places and 13 were boarded up or no longer selling bait.” Regulations also can lead states to ban baitfish imports from areas found to be sources of diseases or nuisance species. This could have devastating effects on producers like the Sauls who sell most of their bait outside Arkansas. Baitfish farmers also must ensure they don’t transport injurious, protected or state-regulated fish, wildlife or plants, which would violate the federal Lacey Act. “If we weren’t constantly vigilant to keep things like zebra mussels and Asian carp out of our ponds,” Margie said, “an undesirable species could be found during a truck inspection, and that would be a Lacey Act violation. It could put us out of business. In fact, a problem on just one farm in Arkansas could destroy everyone’s markets.” Fifteen years ago, Arkansas’ major baitfish farms, including the Saul farm, voluntarily adopted the Bait and Ornamental Fish Certification Program overseen by the Arkansas Agriculture Department. AAD personnel inspect each farm twice annually to ensure all fish are farm-raised and free from certain aquatic nuisance species and diseases. Farms that meet the program’s stringent qualifications for two consecutive years carry certification that assures the public and customers get a high-quality, biosecure product. “We want people to know if they’re using our minnows, they’re getting the best product possible,” Margie said. “Our fish are raised on a farm and not removed from wild stocks. They are certified to be free of particular diseases and nuisance species that could cause problems. We work hard year-round to remain certified as we have since the program began.” Her biggest wish now, Margie says, is that more people will go fishing and pass on the joys of fishing to their children. “It’s easy to entertain a child indoors for hours with an iPad or smartphone,” she said. “It’s also easy to make excuses not to go fishing, because we have to work two jobs or are single parents. But we need to be taking our kids outdoors and making memories. We need to teach them food doesn’t come from a grocery. Fishing is a great way to accomplish those things.” Thanks to the Sauls, their employees and the millions of minnows they raise, thousands of Americans will thrill to the pull of a fish on their line this year, helping foster in them a love for our great outdoors. That will surely be a good thing for all of us.
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