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Rural Missouri Magazine

The first family of goldfish
Ozark Fisheries — filling America's aquariums for eight decades

by Bob McEowen

Employees of Ozark Fisheries pass buckets of goldfish from a net to a transport truck. The Stoutland-based fish farm was a pioneer in Missouri’s aquaculture industry and is one of the largest producers of goldfish in the world.

They approach stealthily to avoid spooking the fish. Two men wearing oversized chest waders step into a shallow pond and begin encircling one corner of the impoundment with a seine. As they gather their shimmering catch, more workers arrive atop an earthen berm. The seiners bring their harvest to shore and reduce the net to a teeming mass of gold.

Pausing only to remove an occasional water snake, the men take just moments to pass bucket after bucket of goldfish to a waiting truck. By the end of the week, the fish will be sorted by size, packaged in water-filled bags, boxed and shipped to destinations across the United States and Canada.

It’s a process repeated day in and day out at Ozark Fisheries, Missouri’s longest-operating commercial fish farm and one of the most significant suppliers of goldfish in the world. Compared to the sprawling catfish farms of America’s Deep South, the 350-acre aquaculture operation near Stoutland is not particularly large. But when it comes to producers of both goldfish and a popular backyard pond fish called koi, Ozark Fisheries is the proverbial big fish in a little pond.

“Doing what we do, which is raising goldfish and koi — both fancy goldfish and common goldfish — we’re probably the largest in the world,” says Larry Cleveland, a grandson of one of the company’s founders and its current president.

Audrey Durham of Richland, a 10-year employee of Ozark Fisheries, weighs fish for packaging in the company’s shipping room. The company ships live fish to wholesalers and distributers throughout the United States and Canada.

Ozark Fisheries, which also has a similar-sized facility in Indiana, supplies wholesale quantities of ornamental fish to distributors across North America. Those middlemen, in turn, supply goldfish and koi to individual pet stores and large retail chains.

Founded by Dr. Charles Furrow, a dentist from Tulsa, and Cleveland’s maternal grandfather, Oklahoma oilman F. Lawrence Bailliere, the operation began as a trout hatchery at the site of what is now Bennett Spring State Park near Lebanon. In 1924, the two men sold the Lebanon hatchery to the state of Missouri and moved to the village of Wet Glaize in Camden County, southeast of the present-day Lake of the Ozarks. There they purchased a cold-water spring and 97 acres of land and, once again, began raising trout to supply fillets to customers in St. Louis, Kansas City and elsewhere.

The remote location made the fish meat venture unprofitable. After two years, they gave up on trout and began raising live goldfish, which they shipped to chain store pet departments on the East Coast.

“My grandfather had a fraternity brother who was involved in one of the five-and-dime stores,” Cleveland recalls. “He got word through that guy that, ‘If you raise them, we’d buy all the goldfish you possibly could raise.’”

With the help of a Japanese aquaculture scientist hired away from an Iowa fish farm, Furrow and Bailliere made their first goldfish sales in 1928 — 1,035 fish, which they sold for $55.

Amber Hendrix of Richland stacks boxes filled with live fish for shipment. Ozark Fisheries pioneered the practice of packaging live fish in water-filled plastic bags protected by a cardboard box. The company worked with the U.S. Postal Service and air freight carriers to develop the “Golfipak,” a package now common throughout the live fish industry.

Today, Cleveland continues that tradition, selling “tens of millions” of fish each year — the closest he’ll come to discussing production specifics. His mother, born Anne Bailliere, is chairman of the company’s board of directors, which also includes three of Cleveland’s siblings. The only family member of his generation to work on the farm, Cleveland moved to Missouri in 1991 after a 15-year real estate career in Tulsa and Nashville. A fourth generation of Bailliere descendents is now involved, as Cleveland’s teenage daughters work in the shipping department of the Missouri facility and his son works at the Indiana farm when not attending college.

The Missouri facility, which is served by Laclede Electric Cooperative, fills the valley of a 6,700-acre farm, much of it devoted to a large cattle operation. Six freshwater springs flow separately to each of the farm’s 350 ponds — some of which were originally dug with horse-drawn scoops and hand shovels.

For most of the year, these ponds are home to millions of small fish. Most are the common goldfish that beginning and budget-minded aquarium owners enjoy. Ozark Fisheries offers more than a dozen varieties of goldfish, many of which are not actually gold. In addition to “commons,” the company sells fantails, black moors, calicos and shubunkins. While some of these fish are considered “fancy,” none is particularly exotic or expensive. Commons sell for 15 to 25 cents apiece at chain pet stores, while fancy varieties might bring $3 or $4 each at retail.

“There are hobbyists who are involved in goldfish and koi keeping that get very particular about certain characteristics, certain colors, where those colors are located on the fish, the body shape. We can’t get involved with that,” Cleveland says. “We probably have a few of those here on the farm, but we’re geared up to produce in large volume.”

Ozark Fisheries raises goldfish and koi in ponds that cover more than 350 acres near Stoutland. The company has a similar-sized facility in Indiana. Photo courtesy of Ozark Fisheries.

By concentrating on the bottom of the aquarium fish market, the company has managed to weather hard economic times. Even as the U.S. economy has tanked, the market for goldfish remains strong. Cleveland speculates that aquarium fish resist recessions because even consumers worried whether they’ll have a job tomorrow can afford to raise goldfish.

“Instead of going out and buying a dog or a cat, what’s cheaper than a goldfish?” Cleveland asks.

The company’s success is a continuation of more than 80 years as a leader in Missouri aquaculture. Ozark Fisheries was an early proponent of laws that placed fish farming in the realm of agriculture and not manufacturing. The Bailliere family also proved to be an innovator for fish farmers everywhere. One of the company’s most notable accomplishments was the development of a new way to ship fish.

Originally, Ozark Fisheries shipped orders in metal cans with perforated lids. A block of ice at the top of the can kept the fish cool during long train rides. In the 1950s, the company developed the “Golfipak” — a cardboard box, which holds a sealed plastic bag that is filled with water, fish and oxygen. The design allows shipping via air carriers and is now almost universal among fish sellers worldwide.

Another area where Ozark Fisheries led the ornamental fish industry was in anticipating a demand for koi, a Japanese carp now popular in backyard fishponds and water gardens.

Left: Ozark Fisheries President Larry Cleveland displays a net full of “fancy” shubunkin goldfish. Cleveland is a grandson of one of the company’s co-founders.

“We actually got into the koi about 35 years ago. We were a little ahead of our time at that point, but there was a demand,” Cleveland says, explaining that in the 1960s, about 35 percent of the company’s business involved shipping pond fish to Europe. “It wasn’t until about 15 years ago that we really started seeing the koi business take off here.”

Responding to market demands is key to the company’s success, says Cleveland. Ozark Fisheries also stays competitive by finding better ways to raise and market fish as labor costs increase and prices for goldfish drop. In the 1970s, 1,000 common goldfish brought $34 at wholesale. Today, that same order costs just $25. “The only way to survive is to become more efficient,” Cleveland says.

In the 1950s, Ozark Fisheries was one of the largest farm employers in the state, with more than 75 employees. Today, 25 people work at the Missouri facility. Where once a half dozen employees tossed feed by hand into ponds from tractor-drawn wagons, now mechanized feed trucks allow one or two men to feed all the fish on the farm in a few hours. Recently, the company modernized the breeding process, moving the spawning stage indoors where workers can control water and air temperature and protect delicate eggs from fungus, disease and predators.

“What we’re attempting to do is take all the variables out of the equation,” says Ross Smith, who, with 24 year’s experience, is one of the least senior men on Ozark Fisheries key production staff.

The company also streamlined the administration of its two facilities. After Cleveland’s grandfather bought his largest competitor, GrassyFork Fisheries of Martinsville, Ind., the two companies continued to operate independently. Today, only the Ozark Fisheries name remains and all sales are handled in Missouri at a century-old building that once housed Camden County’s first post office.

An inspector measures a goldfish while preparing an order for a distributor. All of the koi and “fancy” goldfish the company sells are examined to ensure they meet size, color and condition standards.

Despite modernization and a more efficient operation, the company still provides individual attention to the fish it sells. With the exception of “feeder” fish and commons, which are sold by the pound, nearly every fish passes in front of an inspector’s eyes to ensure that it meets quality standards for size, color and condition.

Cleveland says this devotion to quality reflects a belief that the business will prosper only so long as customers’ expectations are met and they succeed at keeping healthy, attractive fish at home.

“What we want is a good buying experience. A good experience is one where the fish come in, their tails are intact, they have every scale on them, their eyes are just as big as they possibly can be, the color is brilliant and the fish is good and healthy,” Cleveland says. “We want a customer that gets hooked on fish keeping, be it in a fish pool or inside in an aquarium. We don’t want it to be a one-time purchase. We want them to buy a second, third, fourth or fifth fish and so on.”

Ozark Fisheries requires a minimum order of $250. Tours of the facility are available for groups, but not individuals. For more information, call 573-765-3227 or log onto www.ozarkfisheries.com.

Rural Missouri magazine - November 2014
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