BETHEL, Ohio - Renee Koerner is taking back caviar.
"I want to recreate caviar as the opposite of 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,' " says Koerner, proprietor of Clermont County's Big Fish Farms, an operation devoted to producing fine caviar from the Midwest.
"It's delicious, everyone loves it and it needs to be a food anybody can have and enjoy, not just for rich people to eat."
Koerner, who worked in the food and beverage industry for many years, had long hoped to make a transition into a grower or farmer of her own but hadn't yet discovered the right product to make her jump into production. She looked at the American bourbon and wine industries, with deep respective roots in Kentucky and California, as inspirations.
"The thing that makes wine and bourbon special is where they're grown and how they're handled. I wanted to find a product that is hooked into the natural resources of the place where I live," says Koerner.
A serendipitous encounter with Dr. Steve Mims, a Kentucky State University professor of aquaculture and one of the world's leading experts on paddlefish, delivered the eureka moment she sought. Mims' extensive research on paddlefish -- a species indigenous to the waters running through Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Ohio -- inspired Koerner.
"I walked out of his office and realized that paddlefish caviar could be a transformative natural product of the region," says Koerner, "and I'd have the opportunity to set the bar really high, because I'd be the first to market. Agriculture is always a chance, but I looked at this research and felt confident I could be successful."
While the world's foremost source of fine caviar is the sturgeon, primarily from Asia's Caspian Sea, its closely related cousin, the paddlefish, resides in Ohio and Kentucky and delivers a similar quality of caviar. The idea of using her home region's native paddlefish to produce high-end caviar, devised from harvesting the eggs of the fish, led to the birth of Koerner's Big Fish Farms.
Mims suggested to Koerner that, rather than create an operation where caviar fish are raised in tanks with a prepared diet, she "ranch" the paddlefish in lower numbers. While typical caviar-producing aquaculture might see 5,000 fish per acre, Koerner would stock only 10 to 30 fish per acre.
Realizing that to stock this small amount of paddlefish per acre would require owning an almost impossible amount of water to reach any profit, Koerner developed a plan to partner with the communities around Big Fish Farms. She reached out to local towns that owned substantial lakes, housing communities built around bodies of water and farmers who owned land with larger ponds. Her model was simple: If the owners would agree to let Koerner stock their water with paddlefish, she'd return the owners a percentage of Big Fish's profit on the caviar produced by the harvesting of their fish.
Today, Koerner's enterprise has contracts with nearly 1,000 acres of water from Kentucky to Ohio.
"Since there's enough money in caviar, more than one person can be making some money on it," explains Koerner. "I'm a free-market girl who believes in capitalism, but I believe that good capitalism always includes others and makes everybody's life down the chain better."
Koerner has discovered that while paddlefish only naturally occur in rivers, they grow very well in lakes. And though paddlefish are a protected species in the wild, the fact that Koerner's fish are 100% farm-raised exempts Big Fish from violating state laws. Koerner also feels that her method leads to a more distinctive product.
"I think the reason my caviar fares so well is that I'm essentially creating ‘free range caviar,' " says Koerner. "My fish are swimming around, using their muscles and foraging for wild food, which builds a complexity into the product that a fish swimming in circles eating a prepared diet doesn't have."
While Koerner enjoys being able to expose those in her community to the delicacies of caviar, Big Fish Farms' product continues to rack up accolades from renowned restaurants and tastings in Chicago and around the region. Koerner attributes some of this success to a boom in local farming movements and a growing openness toward new food products grown in innovative ways.
"There has been an explosion of food in the past 10 years and people are doing things with food that they've never done before," says Koerner. "If you have the right resources in an area, that area can be transformed by a single product. We've seen it happen in Kentucky and California and it can happen in the Midwest, where we have the capability of raising beautiful fish which produce great caviar."