Reservoir Ranching Across the River
Renee Koerner was always inspired by the entrepreneurs she met working in the wine industry. And after she had spent so much time working the food and wine circuit, she took a cue from these risk-takers and went into business for herself.
Although she obviously had a passion for wine, Koerner says she didn’t want to leave the Midwest, which limited her ability to make a brand competitive with those of California and Italy. She was struck by the idea of creating a product that would become a regional specialty, similar to the way people associate Kentucky with bourbon.
"I wanted a bourbon-type product, something with a regional footprint," Koerner says. "I like the idea of making the area that I live in successful, too."
This train of thought took Koerner to Kentucky State University, where she met Steve Mims, a professor in aquaculture. Mims told her and her husband about the region’s aquifer, which is the second largest in the U.S. From there, Koerner and her husband spent the next couple of years researching the caviar industry and developed a plan utilizing Mims’ research. Big Fish Farms, a business raising paddlefish and selling its eggs – caviar, was born.
"We call it reservoir ranching – it’s very low impact. And because there are only about 20 fish per acre, you don’t have to expend as much energy to raise the paddlefish. It might be the lowest carbon footprint of food production system," Koerner says.
Koerner’s venture has not been missing a risk factor, she says. Because paddlefish take eight to 10 years to produce eggs, this is the first year that the farm will yield caviar. Although the process has been a long and painstaking one, though, Koerner says she thinks the effort will be well worth it in the results. She equates her reservoir ranching to raising free-range chickens.
"It’s really like free-range chickens. It’s farming, but it’s with a freer hand. They’re exercising, swimming around. I feel like this type of caviar is going to emerge as premier, free-range caviar," she says.
The output of caviar from Big Fish Farms will be small the first couple of years, Koerner says, but she anticipates an expansion of the supply in the future. Additionally, she hopes her company will be able to make caviar more accessible to the American people.
"It’s going to always be a little expensive because I have to care for fish for eight years. If the price is right, though, I think people would buy it like a good bottle of wine, maybe twice a year. I think we’re going to be able to make consuming caviar more culturally acceptable," Koerner says.