By CAROL RYAN DUMAS

Capital Press

More and more of the population is recognizing the health benefits of fish, and that gives Idaho's trout producers an opportunity to grow their market.

While that could mean raising more fish for processors, it also means opportunity in selling directly into niche markets, said Linda ODierno, outreach specialist with the National Aquaculture Association.

"I'd like to see aquaculture producers become price setters rather than price getters," she said.

That takes thinking outside the raceway, she said.

"You've got to look at your markets and who you're selling to," ODierno told trout producers at the Idaho Aquaculture Association's annual meeting in Twin Falls on June 2.

Producers lose control of their product and their price when they sell to processors, but they could keep that control if they sell to new, innovative markets.

Other markets that offer opportunity are wholesalers, exports, restaurants, institutions, retailers, farmers' markets and community supported agriculture.

There are lots of farmers' markets where no one is selling quality fish, but it would fit well in that venue. Producers can team up with other producers to sell different products, take orders and offer recipes, she said.

Community supported agriculture (CSA), in which consumers receive regular allotments of farm products in exchange for buying a share in the CSA is also an option. Producers could send fish right along with the regular shipment of produce. CSAs are trendy and have lots of support and websites to advertise. The listings are free, and producers might as well take advantage of it, she said.

"You're going to get a lot more of the profit if you're selling to consumers, but it will demand more work," she said.

Certification and licensing might be required, and producers would also have to deal with transportation, delivery and bookkeeping.

Selling online is also an option for expanding sales and expanding geographic markets. The average one-time purchase of food and beverages online is $80, compared with $30 offline, she said.

Other markets would involve selling live fish, whether it's at farmers' markets, CSAs or fee fishing on the producer's facility. Producers could also have portable pools for fee fishing and sell sundries alongside either fishing operation.

There's also a huge market in Orthodox Jews, who want kosher food, and in institutional sales.

The military, schools, hospitals, government and corporate institutions are all looking for more fish because of its health benefits. A lot of those markets also must source food domestically, she said.

Selling directly to restaurants and grocery stores is also an option, but she warns there are a lot of negatives when selling to chain stores. There's a lot of competition and value requirements. They also operate on narrow margins and can have drawn-out payment policies, she said.

Producers could also form a co-op to accommodate larger buyers and cut out the middleman.

"If you're thinking about forming a co-op, hire a lawyer. There are a lot of legal issues that have to be worked out," she said.

No matter what route producers take, there are plenty of resources, in the way of grants and loans to help, she said.

To get started, producers can check out federal funding at www.sbir.gov and www.nifa.usda.gov .

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