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From Fort to port? Landlocked Allen County could soon join list of seafood producers

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'Fort Report'

This week's show will feature Fort Wayne Urban League President Jonathan Ray and Police Chief Rusty York, who will discuss the recent wave of violence and what might be done to prevent it. The episode will premiere at 5:30 p.m. Saturday on Comcast Channel 57 and FiOS Channel 27 and later at www.news-sentinel.com.

"Aquaculture" meets growing demand for fresh fish and vegetables, backers say

Saturday, March 30, 2013 - 12:01 am

Maine. Boston. New Orleans. When you think of fresh seafood, certain places just come to mind.

Fort Wayne? Not so much.

But that could be changing, with one application for an “aquaculture” business awaiting county approval and at least one and possibly more waiting in the wings.

“Ninety percent of our seafood is imported, so aquaculture has tremendous potential in the United States. Indiana is in a great position (to benefit), and Allen County is one of the hotbeds in Indiana,” said Rob Wibbeler, spokesman for the new but growing Indiana Aquaculture Association, which counts among its member a local company that isn't even operating yet – but hopes to be producing shrimp, tilapia and hydroponic vegetables on a 35-acre farm near Grabill as early as this summer.

“About three years ago I was approached by people who wanted to do something with this. We looked at land in Ohio and Michigan but it was 40 miles from a major city,” said Joseph Linderer, who has put his expertise at designing foundries and other systems to work on behalf of Grabill Farms, which next month will ask the Allen County Board of Zoning Appeals to permit the public sale of fresh vegetables and seafood from an existing building at 12430 Page Road. But it's the way Grabill Farms intends to produce those products that makes the operation unique, at least for now.

If all goes well – and the company is still finalizing its finances – the company intends to be what is commonly called a “fish farm,” constructing two buildings for tilapia and three for shrimp, along with greenhouses for organic vegetables grown in water instead of soil. The goal, Linderer said, is to provide the public, stores, restaurants and other customers with a year-round supply of locally produced fresh foods. Planners' approval is not needed for the fish tanks and greenhouses because the land is already zoned for agricultural use.

And the operation is designed to not only produce healthy products, but to ensure the health of the environment. Linderer said water used in the fish and shrimp tanks can be filtered and recycled for use in the greenhouse, with waste being turned into compost that would also be sold at the on-site market. And because the operation is indoors, there should be no smells or noise to bother the neighbors.

Grabill Farms would be located in the heart of Amish country, which Linderer equates with a strong work ethic. And the operation is expected to create jobs: as many as 10 part-time and 10 full-time employees, with more possible later. But Linderer doesn't intend to limit demand for the company's products to nearby residents. He hopes to sell to local restaurants and farmers markets and has already had interest from out-of-town customers as well.

Linderer figures each building can yield 21,000 pounds of shrimp or 120,000 pounds of tilapia annually, matched by several harvests of vine vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers and leaf varieties, including lettuce and spinach.

“This would be a great thing,” said Allen County Cooperative Extension Agent Gonzalee Martin, who has encouraged Linderer and other would-be aquaculturalists. “This is what people want: A year-round source of fresh food they know is clean. And we won't have to import it.”

I have talked with another man planning a similar operation in Allen County, and Linderer says he knows of at least one more. And those don't include the 22 members listed on the Aquaculture Association's website (www.indianaaquaculture.com).

Some consumers prefer wild-caught fish, but Linderer insists the controlled farm environment produces a reliably better quality of product not threatened by such things as oil spills and other pollutants. But there's no doubting the preference for fresh over frozen, or for fully ripened tomatoes over the pink ones often found on the store shelves in the dead of winter. Add that to the growing support for organic foods and farmers markets and the time may just be right for Fort Wayne to net a small piece of a market heretofore well beyond its reach.

Or should that be "Port" Wayne?

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.