HAGERMAN • At first glance, dairy heifers and rainbow trout may not have much in common, but they are both important enterprises on a Magic Valley farm.
Blind Canyon Aqua Ranch produces rainbow trout along with custom feeding dairy heifers and farming about 100 acres. They also have a small hydroelectric plant.
“We’re a diverse operation,” Gary Lemmon said during a recent tour of farm operations in Gooding and Lincoln counties sponsored by the Farm Bureau Federation. “It’s an approach that has served us well over the years.”
Yet it is also an approach that has tested them at at times, especially when they diversified into a type of fish production that is relatively new to the western U.S.
Blind Canyon Aqua Ranch is one of just a handful of fish operations in Idaho that is raising white sturgeon.
The first sturgeon in the U.S. were spawned at the University of California, Davis in the late 1970s, about the time that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game became concerned about white sturgeon populations in Idaho.
Between 1987 and 2001, Idaho aquaculture producers worked with the College of Southern Idaho and Fish and Game to spawn gravid females and ripe males at CSI. Those early successful crossings provided the stock that producers are now using to develop their domestic lines.
Although white sturgeon and rainbow trout require similar water conditions, the species are nearly polar opposites when it comes to production techniques.
Trout can reach the one-pound market size in a year and two pounds within two years. White sturgeon, on the other hand, grow extremely slowly. While they also reach 1 pound in a year, they are only about 15 pounds at age 4. That’s also when sturgeon can first be sexed, an important milestone for the Lemmons. it takes them about a month to sex a year’s group of sturgeon.
While white sturgeon are a higher-value fish than rainbow trout, the real value comes from caviar production.
Caviar is made from roe, or the eggs, meaning females are more valued than males for the Lemmons.
Once the fish can be sexed, all males except those exhibiting desired traits are sent to market. It takes another six to nine years before the females begin to develop eggs. That makes white sturgeon production a long-term investment.
A 100-pound female, at age 10 to 13, will produce five to seven pounds of caviar in the tin, explained Linda Lemmon.
California produces about 24 tons of caviar annually or about 85 percent of the U.S. total. In comparison, Idaho is producing about 1,000 pounds a year. Lemmon expects that will increase as more females reach maturity and their eggs can be harvested.
Eggs that have not yet spawned taste different and are more valuable than those that have left the ovary and entered the body cavity. The most effective way to harvest eggs in the ovary is to sacrifice the fish and sell the meat as a co-product. White sturgeon filets sell for $11 to $12 per pound — much higher than rainbow trout, but the costs and risks are also greater.
The Lemmons have converted about half of their operation to white sturgeon production. Not content just to diversify enterprises, they’ve also worked to develop new markets.
That’s key since they deliver rainbow trout every week of the year to a market. In addition to delivering trout to more than one processor, they also ship sturgeon to a processor in Oregon and to another farmer who takes live fish to an Asian market.
“In the past, we only had one market and we have found ourselves without a market for our trout and had to scramble,” Gary Lemmon said.