Stocking dugouts: selling fish to farmers

Stocking trout ponds, dugouts | Saskatoon area entrepreneurs close to sold out in March

VANSCOY, Sask. — Collin and Rachel Keet worry about drought, even though their operation is literally swimming in water.

That’s because their customer base dries up along with dugouts and ponds when there is a prolonged dry spell.

Keet’s Fish Farm provides farmers with rainbow trout fingerlings each spring to populate their water holes.

“If there is water, business is good, so the last few years have been pretty good,” said Collin.

The couple sells about 200,000 fingerlings annually from Collin’s parents’ farm north of Vanscoy, Sask, where there is a building housing 20 tanks containing various sizes of rainbow trout.

Collin grew up on a chicken and cattle farm, but his father diversified into fish production in 1985. Collin took over the fish business in 2001 while still attending high school.

“I think Collin is lucky. He gets to do what he likes to do,” said Rachel, a city girl who met her future husband while getting her nursing degree at the University of Saskatchewan.

“Collin is all farm.”

Rachel’s role in the operation is limited to taking orders and providing tours of the production facility.

“We have two little kids now (four and two) so I don’t do as much now as I did before,” she said.

Collin said fish require constant supervision and special care. For instance, if the power goes out, they’ll only survive for five or 10 minutes without moving water. He feels like he is always on call during the production months.

“It’s like being married to a doctor without the BMW,” said Rachel.

Collin looks forward to the end of spring when the fingerlings are all sold and he can briefly focus on other activities, such as completing their house.

The business has a customer base of about 500 buyers, the vast majority of which are Saskatchewan farmers. It also provides fish for places like Musker Pond at Candle Lake.

Prices range from 48 cents for a three inch trout to $2.20 for an eight inch fingerling. That works out to about $50 per pound for the little ones compared to $6 or $7 per lb. for the larger fish.

“We do better on the smaller ones,” said Collin.

There were once six such hatcheries in the province but now there are just three.

“Farms have gotten much bigger in the last 10 to 20 years. There’s less farmers, so there is less customers,” said Collin.

They never have trouble selling all their production, but during the dry years, they have to load a tank full of fish on the truck and chase after customers at predetermined delivery points.

A typical customer will buy about 300 fingerlings, which is the average stocking rate for an acre-sized water hole. Five inch fingerlings are the most popular choice.

The Keets are considering expanding their operation but they would first need to find another source of water. They get their water from a well that taps into the Tyner Valley Aquifer.

The big input costs for the farm are the eggs they source from the United States and the fishmeal feed.

The bulk of the eggs come in June but they also get them in October and January so they can have different sizes of fingerlings in spring.

They get the feed from EWOS Canada in Surrey, B.C.

“The feed conversion of a fish is one-to-one. They grow well on whatever you give them. You know you’re going to get it back out,” said Collin.

The only major disease threat is bacterial gill disease, which is brought on by stress. Adding salt to the water reduces nitrate levels and cleans the gills.

In spring, the couple is busy cleaning up the building and tanks to get them ready for the customer onslaught.

“Once the ice is off the dugouts, we’ll have people lined up in the driveway,” said Rachel.

Collin estimates they were 90 percent sold out of this year’s production by mid-March.

“It was crazy this year. I was surprised. I think it was partly the warm weather,” he said.

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