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Thursday, Apr 25, 2019
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Tropical fish industry reeling from cold weather

LITHIA - Tropical fish farming is a way of life for the Rawlins family. Art Rawlins and his wife Dorothy moved to their property near the Polk County line in 1971. Art now works with their son David Rawlins Sr., his wife Kathy and their son, David Jr., operating and maintaining about 15 acres dedicated to farming freshwater tropical fish. But Rawlins Tropical Fish Farm, like others in the area, is recovering from two major freezes in a year - in January and December. About 75 percent of the farm's fish that are grown to market size in outside ponds died in December's cold spell as the water temperatures fell below 55 degrees.
"Every farmer is at the mercy of the weather," Rawlins said. "I doesn't matter if you are growing tomatoes, strawberries, pole beans or a gold tiger barb, the weather is always important to success." Plastic covers over the ponds failed to provide enough protection for fish vulnerable to cold water. "In January of 2010 we saw record cold temperatures devastate the tropical fish industry in Florida. Then in December it was another blast of cold air that lingered long enough to kill most of my outside fish," he said. There was some relief that came in the way of federal dollars. Tropical fish farmers in Polk and Hillsborough counties received about $1.5 million in federal money to reimburse a portion of their losses. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Services Agency said nearly $1.2 million went to farmers in Hillsborough, where many of the farms are located. The money comes from a federal fund paid into by small farms across the country that fall under the Non-Insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, said Creighton Welch, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis. Rawlins said the money covered a small portion of a fish farmer's losses. "A farm that has lost over 50 percent of its stock in the freeze is eligible to receive a payment covering losses above that percentage, with a limit of $100,000," Rawlins said. "That is often less than 25 percent of the total lost by the farmer, but that is better than nothing." In the big picture it wasn't a lot of money, but for some of the fish farmers it was enough. "Several fish farmers are able to remain in business and recover from what could have been a disaster," said Rawlins, the president of the Florida Tropical Fish Farm Association. Most of the tropical fish grown in Florida are bred and raised in the area, Rawlins said. Fish farming in Florida is a $200 million industry, including $70 million in wholesale sales by farmers, he said. "When I first started in this business 40 years ago there was more money in it for the farmer. Back then we had 15,000 small pet shops that carried tropical fish that we sold to. Now there are half that many small shops. Our volume has increased over the years. But our big customers now are PetSmart, Walmart and PETCO." Rawlins knows how hard it is to make a living at his craft. "Its not easy, but it's what we do. We are in it for the long haul."   [email protected]   (813) 731-8161
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