They grow this stuff in Ohio?

Freshwater Farms’ annual Ohio Fish and Shrimp Festival

By Paula Johnson

Photo: Retail Marketing Manger Cherie dela Rama digs into a box full of fresh shrimp; photo: Gary Haber

Fish festival fever

Ohio is famous for festivals of all sorts. So far, I’ve counted more than 50 in the southwestern part of our state alone. But I was surprised to learn about the 13th Annual Ohio Fish and Shrimp Festival, held at Freshwater Farms in Urbana. The festival runs Sept. 19–21 and features live music, crafts, contests and fresh seafood.

Fish? Maybe. But shrimp? In Ohio? Did I miss the bayous surrounding Dayton? Apparently I had a lot to learn. Dave Smith of Freshwater Farms, the festival’s host, schooled me – pun intended.

Dave Smith, or “Dr. Dave,” as he is known to all, has a Master’s in the study of catfish and crayfish farming, and a Ph.D in fish nutrition. Clearly I would be learning at the feet of the master! After completing his education, Smith returned to Urbana and purchased an abandoned poultry farm, turning it into one of the foremost aquaculture centers in the nation, and the only one to have a year-round shrimp harvest.

“An ongoing revolution in the technology of producing saltwater shrimp has resulted in our capability to have a continual harvest,” Smith explained. “Our festival is timed to take advantage of the annual fresh water crop before the cold weather sets in.”

E-fish-ent

Freshwater Farms is at the leading edge of eco-technology. For example, they were the first in the world to raise trout in specially-designed recirculating tanks, recycling heated water to save on electricity and providing ideal living conditions for the fish. The sophisticated filtration system developed by Smith uses only 13 gallons of water per minute, where conventional systems can use hundreds, even thousands of gallons. Trout need exceptionally clean water, requiring twice as much oxygen as other fish to be raised successfully. This design has allowed Freshwater to produce more than 100,000 pounds of fish annually. His innovations in the aquaculture industry led him to be awarded Wittenberg University’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2011.

Doesn’t it take huge amounts of water to sustain a fish farming operation? Surprisingly, according to the United Nations, it takes less water to raise fish than to raise cattle. None of the operation’s wastewater goes into streams. Freshwater redirects its wastewater to fertilize and irrigate the facility’s adjoining farm fields. “We got a bumper crop of muskmelon last year!” Smith said proudly. The recent purchase of 19 additional acres will allow the farm to continue to expand.

Fish farming is economical in other ways.

“No other animal is as efficient,” Smith continued. “One pound of feed is equal to one pound of fish. Cattle require up to 12 pounds of feed to produce one pound of beef.” And all the feed used at Freshwater is sustainable and plant-based.
To the general public, fish farming can have negative connotations. “Isn’t wild caught always better?” I asked. “Not at all!” responded Dr. Dave. “Everything in aquaculture is controlled. There are no diseases, no antibiotics, no chemical pollution. Completely contaminate free. Clean water + clean food = clean fish.”
Freshwater Farms has diversified its business over the 28 years since its inception. Formerly selling only to restaurants, they have added a retail operation headed up by Smith’s daughter, who has a culinary background. The public can buy fresh fish and fish products such as smoked trout and smoked trout spread. Pond management, stocking and equipment sales account for one-third of the business. Freshwater designs and manufactures its own aeration and fountain systems, headed up by Smith’s son.

 

Sturgeon and reptiles and trout! Oh my!

The public can also visit Freshwater year-round during their hours of operation. There’s a self-guided tour for individuals, and guided tours for school groups to educate children on how aquatic plants and animals live and grow. It was during my recent visit I met two of Freshwater’s stars: Fluffy the alligator and Flipper the sturgeon. As we toured the grounds, Smith led me to an outdoor enclosure where he paused and called Fluffy, who was rescued after being found in a neighbor’s pond. She immediately turned and slithered over to him. Comparisons to Dr. Doolittle apply. Dr. Dave talks to the animals and they respond!

The festival is actually the anniversary of Fluffy’s arrival at Freshwater. Local police brought the then-30-inch alligator – with its mouth duct taped shut – to Smith, knowing he had a reptile license. They speculated it was someone’s pet that had become too large to care for and was abandoned.

“The police cars arriving in the middle of the festival caused quite a commotion!” Smith remembered. “It’s one of my favorite festival memories.”
The Dr. Doolittle impression was reinforced at the sturgeon tank where Smith reached in and petted Flipper, who, as if on cue, flipped and splashed spectacularly in the water. What does it feel like to pet a sturgeon? Surprisingly smooth, as sturgeon don’t have scales or bones. Their skeletons are made entirely of cartilage and their skin has an immune system that resists infection, so touching them is not threatening to their health or ours. Native to Ohio, these fish can live over 100 years, grow to 11 feet long, and weigh in at a whopping 1,000 pounds. Flipper, a youngster at a mere 18 years, is not quite that large. Yet. But it’s clear Smith is going to need a bigger tank!

Toads, salamanders, frogs and a 30-year-old snapping turtle named Steve round out the reptilian cast of characters to meet on a visit. And no visit is complete without tossing food pellets into the large outdoor tanks to unleash the trout feeding frenzy.

 

An up-scale event

All of this is what happens every day at Freshwater. But once a year, things get even crazier at festival time. The festival grew out of the public’s curiosity about what goes on at Freshwater.

“People just kept stopping by and we decided we should do a public event so everyone would be able see what we do here,” Smith said.

The festival has grown in size and scope, originating in Urbana’s downtown, then moving to the Freshwater Farms location nine years ago. Last year’s attendance was 4,000, with more expected this year.

“It’s really a festival for everyone,” Retail Marketing Manger Cherie dela Rama said. “We have a diverse group of vendors, really fun activities for kids, and of course the food is amazing! It’s wonderful to see how this festival has grown into what is today!”

And dela Rama should know.

As a childhood friend of the Smith children, she practically grew up at Freshwater Farms. Upon returning to Ohio after college, taking a job with Dr. Dave at Freshwater was a natural career choice. And working to promote the festival is one of her favorite parts of the job.

This year’s event will feature booths from a variety of vendors, some in keeping with the festival’s aquatic theme, such as BluWater water treatment and purification systems, and Don’s Prawns & More.

“We’re very selective about our vendors,” dela Rama stressed. “We want to provide the highest quality and best experience for the public.”

She cited booths featuring handcrafted Native American collectibles and Siam Orchid, showcasing items from Thailand, as two popular crowd favorites. Farm market-loving festivalgoers can stock up on fall mums, breads, baked goods and organic garlic and spices. “We even have a booth featuring a blacksmith demonstrating metal arts!” she continued.

After the kids have finished seeing the animals and feeding the fish, there’s plenty more to do, starting with the Sand Castle Play Zone and Treasure Dig, and a petting zoo. Young artists can enter the Flipper and Fluffy coloring contest to win a $20 gift certificate. Entries can be downloaded and colored at home, or on-site at the festival. Biker tykes from 18 months to 5 years can compete in the Strider Bike Race at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Children should bring a bike and a helmet. There will be a handful of bikes available on a first-come basis. The Strider Bike Adventure Zone will be available all weekend for youngsters to explore riding on unique terrain with fun obstacles.

For competitive adults, there’s the shrimp peeling and eating contest. For $5, adults can enter to win $50 and bragging rights. Each contestant receives a plate of shrimp and battles it out to see who finishes first. And then there’s the food available for the rest of us non-competitors. Freshwater Farms has lined up an enticing array of dishes prepared from their own harvest, with fresh fish and shrimp dinners, sandwiches, fish and chips and jambalaya. Mediterranean salad, red beans and rice, broccoli slaw, edamame salad and fresh local hand-cut fries round out the gourmet sides, along with kids’ meals.

 

Find it here, foodies!

If citrus grilled whitefish with herb vinaigrette or coconut-crusted shrimp with sweet and sour sauce isn’t your thing, how about a chili cheese or Rueben dog, offered by Bite Me! Gourmet Corn Dogs? Still not there? How about German shnitzel, sauerkraut balls and pierogies? Italian shrimp and mushroom pasta and meatball sandwiches? Maybe naan-wrapped flank steak or barracuda fish tacos?

After you make your choice, sample an apple crisp sundae for dessert. Having just received a liquor license, this year you can wash it all down with beer, wine or even a margarita. (Or all three if you aren’t driving!) The Ohio Fish and Shrimp Festival is a festival that takes its food seriously! But relax, all you funnel cake fanatics. This festival also adheres to the unwritten law requiring funnel cake at all Ohio festivals.

And if the food alone isn’t music enough to your ears, there’s the actual music. Smith has enlisted a music curator to search out and book top artists of all genres. Just a few examples: for reggae fans there’s The Ark Band and The Flex Crew, classic country and rock by Strategy, blues and bluegrass from Erika Hughes and The Well Mannered, and jazz, R & B and funk by The New Basics Brass Band. The group Fever Fever promises a “combination of ambient, surreal, alternative chill rock erupting with reverb/hero inspiring choruses.” The band Kick N Flava, performing at 1 p.m. on Saturday, was named one of Dayton’s Must See bands by NiteScene Magazine.(No word on what bands the fish prefer.)

In the line-up, and not to be missed is Columbus native Sydney Arterbridge, a recent competitor on “American Idol.” She wowed the judges with her virtuosic rendition of Minnie Ripperton’s “Loving You” showcasing her glass-shattering vocal range. Arterbridge is set to take the stage at 7 p.m. on Saturday. All musical acts are included in the admission price and can be enjoyed at the festival’s tables and chairs set up in front of the main stage, or visitors can bring their own lawn chairs and blankets.

With amazing food, music and sturgeon petting, it’s easy to see why fish whisperer Dr. Dave Smith’s Ohio Fish and Shrimp Festival ranks head and shoulders above most regional festivals. Or should that be flippers and fins?

 

Insider’s Tip: Bring a cooler to take home fresh fish and shrimp. The shrimp sells out fast, so plan to arrive early.

The Ohio Fish and Shrimp Festival takes place Friday–Sunday, Sept. 19–21 at Freshwater Farms of Ohio, 2624 N. U.S. Highway 68 in Urbana. Festival admission is $4 for adults and $2 for children ages 3-12 (cash only). Free weekend repeat admission with hand stamp and free parking. For more information, please call 937.652.3071 or visit fwfarms.com/festival. 

 

Reach DCP food critic Paula Johnson at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

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Paula Johnson
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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  1. See You at the Ohio Fish & Shrimp Festival! | Champaign Uncorked! - September 19, 2014

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