TWIN FALLS • For Idaho’s trout producers, it’s not finding new customers for their product that’s the greatest challenge; it’s producing enough fish to meet demand.
An informal clicker survey conducted during an Idaho Aquaculture Association workshop showed production to be the most limiting factor. That’s different than what catfish producers in Florida had indicated during a similar marketing workshop held the previous week.
Linda Odierno, outreach specialist with the National Aquaculture Association, wasn’t surprised by the answer. She recognizes that although Idaho is by far the nation’s largest trout producer, water shortages have led to empty raceways.
“Producers would like to produce more fish,” she said. In 2011, Idaho accounted for half of the $76.6 million worth of trout sold in the United States. That represents about 33 million pounds of trout valued at $1.14 per pound for a total of $34.9 million.
That’s only about $1 million more than what Idaho trout producers received in 1991 when they produced 45 million pounds of fish. The difference was that trout only sold for 75 cents a pound that year.
Trout production now fluctuates based on both water supply and markets. Good water years in the mid -2000s pushed production to nearly 50 million pounds in 2007, but the global economic woes beginning in 2008 sharply curtailed production.
“We should have trout — not tilapia — on East Coast restaurant menus,” she said. “Trout has more panache, but we just don’t have the production.”
That’s why she believes so strongly that producers should aim for high-end markets first, but also look for different techniques or practices that will allow them to raise different products with the water they have available. That approach should also help them survive adverse macroeconomic climates.
“I’d like to see aquaculture producers become price setters rather than price takers,” she said.
Idaho’s relative distance from major markets has turned trout into a commodity rather than a specialty product. Nearly two-thirds of the participants in the NAA’s Aquaculture Business Management and Marketing Workshop sell directly to processors.
There are opportunities for reaching consumers who want Idaho trout. Food deserts, urban centers that lack grocery stores, have received a lot of press lately, but Odierno points out that seafood deserts exist all over the United States.
If a producer can Identify places where no one is selling quality seafood and figure out how to sell directly to those consumers, it should mean more profit for the producer.
Bringing products to local farmers markets or joining forces with an established community supported agriculture program may also be ways to make direct sales work, Odiermo said.
Or create a brand and an Internet presence. According to research Odierno cited, the average online food purchase is $80, compared to the average off-line purchase of just $30.
Just 8 percent of the respondents to the clicker survey during the Idaho workshop are selling product at farmers markets or online. No one was using community supported agriculture programs.
Mark Daily, president of the Idaho Aquaculture Association, was intrigued by many of Odierno’s suggestions of how to diversify markets, but said most producers can’t produce enough fish to diversify.
“Water limitations have taken out a lot of production,” he said.