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Fish tale.

FISH TALE Goldfish Capital of the World?

There is a common misconception about goldfish. They are not imports from the exotic lands of China, Japan or Australia's Great Barrier Reef. How about exotic Martinsville, near the country club on the northeast side of town? Before they put in the four-lane bypass, travelers between Indianapolis and Bloomington drove right past the nearly century-old Grassyfork Fisheries Inc., on old Indiana 37. Now it is a few miles off the beaten track.

Ed Ferguson, Grassyfork's president and farm manager, seems a little nostalgic for the days when the farm was billed as a "top tourist attraction." He started working there 47 years ago as a 15-year-old high-school kid and remembers when up to a thousand visitors a week trooped around the ponds. He'd show them through and answer all kinds of incisive questions. Q: "How long do they live?" A: "Five days to five weeks to 15 years, depending on how well you take care of them." Q: "How many fish do you have?" A: "Millions, give or take three or four." Q: "How big is the hatchery?" A: "The largest in the world, and that makes Martinsville the 'goldfish capital of the world.'

"That last answer has changed," adds Ferguson, "but Grassyfork, which combined with Ozark Fisheries Corporation in 1970, is the unrivaled producer." Ferguson should know - he's executive vice president of Ozark Fisheries, which has hatcheries in Stoutland, Mo., Alabama, Kansas, Florida and Georgia.

If you talk to Ferguson, he'll explain the hatchery process so clearly you can start a fish factory in your own backyard: "Start with a creek. At Grassyfork Fisheries, it's Grassyfork Creek. Dig 450 ponds so you have a landscape that looks like those Vietnam rice paddies. Dam the river. Flood the ponds."

Next you need breeder fish. Ferguson won't sell you any because his are too valuable. They are well over the size of a keeper bass. Some measure 14 to 20 inches, and weigh more than 3 pounds. They're all pampered and proficient at what they do, but you must own both females and males to expect any measurable success.

Now fill a bunch of boxes with Spanish moss trucked up from Florida and Louisiana. Or you can use nylon brushes. They are 40 inches long, 3 inches around and four of those are mounted in a steel frame. Sink them in your breeding ponds, then wait for April. When the dogwood blooms, so do the moms, all over the nice moss nests. Each mom is good for about 80,000 eggs. Soon the dads come cruising - not one, but three or four on parade. They do their thing, and, presto, the eggs are fertilized. Now you see why you need more males. They are haphazard in their aim.

Next you move the mats, with eggs attached, to your 400 sterilized production ponds. This is prudent because the parents feel no filial restraints and will eagerly feast on their tiny tots. A snack is a snack.

Now go sit in the office. Wait three days. Little wigglers with saucer eyes and assorted viscera will not appear in the tanks. Don't panic. Fry begin life transparent and microscopic. The only way you'll know they are there is that when you shovel in tons of dried egg yolk, things devour it. Another way to know they are there is to hold a mirror under water on a sunny day and watch tiny shadows streak across the surface. A satisfying sight to a beginning breeder.

In five days you start giving them high-protein feed and wean them off of powdered egg. You now have completed your first spawning. Take courage. You only repeat this process from April through June. Just three months to go.

There is little feet-up-on-the-desk time. "A fish farmer's work is never done," says Ferguson.

"The food has to get out to the fish, so trucks run along the banks and machine blow the feed out across the surface of ponds. In the summer we use about 18 tons a week.

"When the fish are 3 months old they are ready to be caught and packaged to go. Five men take a 150-by 8-foot net or seine to move the fish into a corner of the pond. They are dipped out and go into a tank truck and on to the shipping area. There we pipe them into vats to be graded by size and type.

"The more valuable fish, fantails or fancies, are spread out on a table where we hand pick and separate them by species, color and perfection."

Moving the lively critters is another story unto itself.

"To transport them to Florida or Canada we use semitrailer trucks carrying tanks. They'll haul a million fish. We'll ship a half a million a day out of here," says Ferguson.

Some of those hundreds of thousands get first-class treatment, and fly the friendly skies. "Most of them travel by air in plastic bags with a couple of gallons of water and pure oxygen," Ferguson explains. "We ship pretty well all over the world. Belgium, Israel, England, Italy, South America, Mexico - everywhere.

"In this country the big customers are Wal-Mart, K mart, the 10-cent stores and the chain pet stores," says Ferguson. Other big buyers include carnivals, which give away the redgold fish as prizes to those who successfully toss Ping-Pong balls into fishbowls.

The small size and simple care of goldfish make them ideal pets for urban dwellers. "Fish sell well in big cities because people can't keep a large animal in an apartment but a bowl fits fine on a dresser, book shelf or kitchenette counter," explains Ferguson. "They're only three or four dollars, food's cheap and you don't have to walk them."

Goldfish also are popular as promotional items. "We had a huge promotion with Procter and Gamble some years back and gave away millions of fish," says Ferguson. "We packed a plastic aquarium, an air pump and a bag of fish and shipped it to the stores. They gave them away with the purchase of one of their soap products."

Similar conditions collided in 1899 to make Grassyfork a reality. Eugene C. Shireman owned a marshy, 1500-acre farm. A friend in Indianapolis was in the soap business. If Shireman could raise fish, the soap man would buy the crop and mail them to customers as premiums in gratitude for trying his product. A $1 million business was born that has been the nursery for a billion fish. The soap company went belly up, but Grassyfork swims on.

Today, each farm in the six-state Ozark Fishery chain has its specialty. The hatchery in Lawrence, Kan., for example, breeds minnows. Grassyfork now produces more class than mass. We are not talking about your common, bowl-variety here. These are aristocratic fancies.

The fish are highly therapeutic, relieve tension, reduce stress and give you somebody who will listen. Their gyrations can start you daydreaming almost as fast as a flickering fire.

In their miniature universe they can live more than a decade, if they are treated kindly and gently. To keep Goldie going great, Ferguson has these tips:

* Don't overfeed her (or him; it's hard to tell them apart). She never knows when to stop eating.

* Give her plenty of fresh air and sunlight.

* Don't change her water too often and never use city water because it is loaded with chlorine.

* Give her a pinch of Epsom salts or table salt once a month to keep her regular.

* Watch the top fin on her back. If it droops, you have a sick pet. The traditional cure was a couple of earthworms, but in these days of medical miracles, a dose of antibiotics might be best for the fish.

Many of the tips apply to us all.

PHOTO : Fantails and fancies: Up to half a million a day are shipped from Grassyfork Fisheries in Martinsville.

PHOTO : Ed Ferguson, Grassyfork's president and farm manager
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Ventures; Grassyfork Fisheries Inc.
Author:Johnson, J. Douglas
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Article Type:company profile
Date:Apr 1, 1990
Words:1327
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