There are fish in those barns?

Why farmers in southwestern Ontario are switching from livestock to aquaculture

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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