MOSSLEY — From the outside, with its off-white, nearly grey utility siding and large loading dock door, the building has the appearance of a small industrial facility — the kind that line highways like the 401 and 402 and are hard to distinguish from each other.
This 60,000-square-foot facility near the tiny hamlet of Mossley, 20 minutes east of London, however, lurks deep in corn and soybean country well away from highway eyes. And like the neighbouring farm fields, it’s used for food production.
In the early 2000s, that food was mushrooms, or, more specifically, the spore-infused compost sold to other mushroom farms to grow mushrooms. But when the business failed, E & E McLaughlin Ltd. in Tillsonburg bought the building and in 2012 launched Sand Plains Aquaculture, a tilapia fish farm intended to supply Toronto’s live fish market.
Sand Plains Aquaculture is among a handful of large aquaculture operations giving new purpose to old buildings in Ontario’s rural areas. Twenty minutes south in Aylmer, Planet Shrimp operates in the former Imperial Tobacco plant. And south of Campbellford, in Northumberland County, First Ontario Shrimp operates in a 60-by-13-metre former pig barn on the Cocchio family farm.
Other experiments in land-based aquaculture are taking advantage of unused barn capacity in the province — the result of boom-and-bust pricing in pork and beef markets over the past two decades — and the advent of recirculation systems that now make land-based rainbow trout production more cost effective.
Steve Naylor, an aquaculture specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, says a farmer considering a barn conversion would need a building in good condition and with dimensions of at least 13 by 60 metres (40 by 200 feet). Following on from that starting point, an operation of that size could eventually generate somewhere between 120 and 230 tonnes of fish per year. “That’ll generate a [sustainable] income for a farmer,” Naylor says — that, with luck, comes with far fewer ups and downs than what farmers experience in the pork and beef markets.
So far, aquaculture refit ventures comprise only a tiny percentage of the tiny number of land-based fish farms that Ontario had in 2016 (according to a University of Guelph annual survey). But many in the industry say solid growth in market demand is creating an opportunity that’s hard to ignore.
Canadians are gradually adding more fish to their diets. According to federal statistics, the average Ontario household’s annual spending on fish and seafood products rose 5.6 per cent between 2011 and 2015.
Meanwhile, some consumers are losing trust in imports. Investigations have revealed rampant mislabelling and questionable farm practices involving foreign fish and seafood. This creates an opportunity for ethical and sustainable local production. “We don’t expect to cater to the entire marketplace but there’s a large segment who care about what they’re eating,” says Marvyn Budd, president of Planet Shrimp.
There are pragmatic reasons behind local production too: fresher product and lower transport costs. Sand Plains, in Tillsonburg, is one of only two large tilapia farms in Canada. Before it came along, the live tilapia market in the Greater Toronto Area — representing roughly three million pounds of fish a year — was mostly supplied by growers in the United States, according to Roger Bushey, the fish farm’s manager. “We’re only two or 2½ hours outside of Toronto,” he says, “well within range.”
Since its launch four years ago, Bushey estimates Sand Plains has wrested a third of the Greater Toronto Area tilapia market away from imports.
And what’s bigger than tilapia? Rainbow trout. Production of that fish likely presents the most lucrative opportunity for land-based systems in Ontario, says Steve Naylor, an aquaculture specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture. “That market is huge.”
Rainbow trout comprises 92 per cent of the farmed fish output in Ontario. Most comes from lake-based open-net cage farm operations in the province’s north, and these operations supply the majority of the province’s market. But there’s room for more players. Naylor cites statistics that show a healthy 10 per cent growth in Ontario’s rainbow trout production in 2016, and then the same again in 2017. “There is a huge undersupply in the Ontario market,” he explains.
Proponents of land-based aquaculture point to its ecological benefits versus open-net fish farming, meanwhile. Wherever it is practised, net-based fish farming in open waters generates concerns about pollution as well as the spread of parasites and disease.
(The net-based based industry responds by promoting the economic benefits as well as the healthfulness of the product, and has vowed to find strategies to control the more negative effects).
Environmental groups often speak favourably of the water-saving closed containment technologies that are increasingly used in land-based aquaculture. Thanks to the system in use at Sand Plains Aquaculture, Bushey says “we’re reusing 98 to 99 per cent of our water.” The nutrients removed from the water become fertilizer for a nearby field.
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Meanwhile, contained operations pose no risk of fish escapes and invasions in native aquatic environments — because even if a fish manages to escape from a barn somehow, it won’t get very far.
Another benefit is that most of the fish farmed in these systems don’t need as much protein as land-based farm animals to gain weight. Some, such as the algae-loving tilapia, don’t need to eat fishmeal. For ecologists that’s a plus: They argue that large volumes of fishmeal, made from marine byproducts and used mostly to feed farmed fish such as salmon, takes a huge toll on the oceans.
When Paul and Tracy Cocchio and their son Brad found themselves with empty barns a few years ago following a downturn in the pork industry, they knew they needed to find a new use for them in order to ensure the farm could continue to support two generations. A visit to shrimp operations attached to farms in Maryland and Indiana gave them the inspiration to establish First Ontario Shrimp six years ago.
Today the Cocchios’ operation houses 20 tanks: four “starter tanks” that the baby shrimp, acquired from a U.S. supplier, are first added to before being transferred into one of 16 other tanks in which they grow to market size. They buy baby shrimp from a Florida hatchery to grow to market size and harvest them nearly weekly, selling mainly to retailers and restaurants from Toronto to Montreal.
Brad Cocchio and Budd both say it has been tough for their shrimp-raising operations to keep up with demand.
Despite the two entrepreneurs’ success with shrimping, another aquaculture specialist says rainbow trout is, once again, probably the best bet for anyone who might be considering converting a barn. Daniel Stechey, owner of Canadian Aquaculture Systems Inc., in Cobourg (about 100 kilometres east of Toronto), helped create Canada’s first retrofit of a barn into an aquaculture operation in 2010. (It was a Manitoba facility and it’s still in operation.)
Stechey is currently working with a farmer to convert hog barns northwest of London into a rainbow trout farm. Trout offers steady market value, and incomes are enough to cover the costs of operation. “Certainly prices for trout have firmed up; they’ve increased,” he says. “When we did the first model farm [in Manitoba] the price of trout was $1.80 per pound [wholesale, based on a total fish] … Today it’s $2.50 and the input costs really haven’t changed much. And there’s no sign of that weakening because the trout market is supply limited.”
Moreover, because Ontario already has lake-based aquaculture, much of the infrastructure needed to support land-based trout production — processors, shippers, and veterinary expertise — already exists.
For all the benefits, indoor fish farms do face other significant challenges and risks. First and foremost, farmers need to consider the hefty cost of retrofitting buildings and installing new equipment. Costs can run into the millions of dollars, and require a good deal of time: a year and a half for Planet Shrimp’s first phase; three years for First Ontario; two years for Sand Plains .
“We’ve had to retrofit all the interior of the building and then all the electrical has been redone and a new roof,” says Bushey of Sand Plains. “There was a lot of work put into the original structure just to make it adequate for the fish farm.”
Another challenge: Some species, such as shrimp and tilapia, require warm water to thrive (rainbow trout don’t). If power fails, these farmers have only minutes to respond to ensure their livestock’s survival.
Then there are the unknowns of being the first in the province to attempt indoor production at such a large scale. “There’s nobody out there to tell you how to do this or to really give you any insight because they say that every barn runs different,” says Cocchio.
Meanwhile, aquaculture owners do worry about the impact of rising electrical and fuel costs on their operations’ bottom line.
Despite all the challenges, however, these pioneering farms are experiencing promising success. Cocchio knows the idea of transforming unused barns into aquaculture operations strike a chord with farmers looking for new opportunities. Nevertheless, he advises caution.
“I feel like not anybody could just do this,” he says, noting they were told growing shrimp would be as easy as growing pigs. It isn’t. Just try to tell if a shrimp is sick: A baby is the size of an eyelash.
“You have to know chemistry and water and things like that to make this work.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.
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