URBANA, Ohio -- Farmers worried about making a living off their land are turning to water.
A growing number of Midwest farmers are diversifying into fish farming to supplement their income and shield their farms from falling crop prices, fickle weather and other financial pressures.
''We were dependent solely on the poultry market,'' said Jim Zehringer, who began raising fish on his chicken farm in 1998. ''This was a financial decision. We had the water. And we had the infrastructure in place.''
Zehringer now produces 500 pounds of tilapia each week on his farm near Fort Recovery in northwest Ohio. He sells the fish -- prized for its mild, flaky white meat -- to restaurants and grocery stores in Columbus, Toledo and Dayton.
Five years ago there were 33 Ohio fish farms that produced total annual sales of $1.79 million, according to the U.S. agricultural census. Today, there are more than 200 fish farms.
In Illinois, there are about 50 commercial fish farms. Five years ago there were fewer than 10, according to Chris Breden, of the Illinois Fish Farmers Co-op.
Dave Smith has been raising fish for the past 20 years at his farm near Urbana in western Ohio and now sells 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of fish to restaurants and stores in Dayton and Columbus every week.
He said Ohio fish farmers who sell to local markets have an advantage over overseas and out-of-state suppliers because the Ohio-raised fish is always fresher.
''That's our niche,'' Smith said. ''Nobody can compete with us.''
Laura Tiu, aquaculture specialist at Ohio State University, said some people have started raising fish to try to save the family farm.
''They're desperate to hang on to it,'' Tiu said. ''They don't want to sell it off for housing lots.''
Tiu said about 1 billion pounds of fish is eaten each year in the Midwest, but that the region produces less than 2 percent of that amount.
There are about 300 fish farms in Wisconsin, up from 280 five years ago.
''There were a lot of new entrants in the business in the '90s,'' said Will Hughes, of the Wisconsin Department of Agricul-ture's development division. ''I think that's trailed off because people have found there's a steep learning curve.''
Tiu said it takes five years to learn the business. Some farmers have failed because they started too big and fast without first finding buyers.
A handful of Ohio farmers raise tilapia, a tropical fish native to the Nile River.
Smith said scores of farms devoted to raising yellow perch have popped up in Ohio in the past two years to capitalize on residents' appetites for that fish. And a few farmers have begun raising shrimp in the past two years.
In Illinois, there are 27 shrimp farmers, up from the 10 or 12 operating in the state a year ago. The state agriculture department offers low-interest loans to people to help finance the startup of shrimp farms.
''We are going to embark on trying to help these farmers find a niche market, especially in the city of Chicago,'' spokesperson Cory Jobe said.
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