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Caviar 'Farm of the Future' Grows Amidst Cow Pastures

Dec 18, 2015

The newest food gracing high-end retail stores comes from an area known more for cattle ranches and citrus groves than sturgeon. We go to an experimental farm far inland from the Gulf of Mexico, where a treat many of us have never tasted is being raised.

When you think of where caviar comes from - that's if you ever do think of caviar - what places come to mind?  The Caspian Sea, maybe Russia?  

How about Myakka?

The nation's newest hotbed of caviar production is closer to Myakka River State Park than the Gulf of Mexico. Here, amidst sprawling oak trees draped with Spanish moss, is the fruit of a pilot program to create sustainable fisheries.

Jim Michaels sticks his hand into a tank the size of a small swimming pool to grab a juvenile sturgeon.

"Now, some people will cringe when I do this. And what I'm going to do, is I'm going to lift one of these fish out of the tank," he says, his hand gripping a small, whiskered fish. "But I'm going to tell you, sturgeon have self-supporting gills. So as long as the gills are moist, these fish are fine. They're going to exchange oxygen."

These prehistoric-looking fish are the stars of a project started a decade ago by Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. The non-profit recently spun off its program to produce caviar, and Michaels left Mote to manage the new for-profit operation.

He's been called "the sturgeon whisperer."

Jim Michaels, with one of his prodigy
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News

"One of the fun things about growing sturgeon is we're not reading the book - we're writing the book," he says. "We're pushing the edge of the sustainable technology all the time, and continue to do so."

Michaels has been growing sturgeon since 1980. He's is now managing the project for Healthy Earth, which is owned by the Sarasota venture capital firm Seven Holdings. They're taking sustainable fisheries technology developed by Mote to produce Black Opal caviar.

"The world population is going up, the per capita consumption is going up. So something has to fill the gap," he says. "And unfortunately now, 90 percent of the seafood the U.S. consumer eats is imported. We don't have production in our own country to support its population."

They have 60,000 sturgeon - that's about 160 metric tons of fish - swimming in dozens of pools.

The key here is sustainability. They have developed a process to use less fresh water than other fisheries - and it's all recycled in a closed system. In essence, that means they don't have to use as much water to dilute pollution.

"So we could just put it outside and get rid of it. But why not do something with it," he says. "So we grow plants with it. We grow aquatic plants. And what's really neat is the aquatic plants that we grow are then transplanted to storm water retention ponds throughout the state of Florida."

He brings me to the end of the line for the fish. There, workers in a cold, sterile processing room filet the female sturgeon, carefully removing the roe-filled ovaries.

"So we remove the ovaries, we'll then rub them on these stainless steel screens, and the eggs will separate and drop into the bowls," says Michaels. "We'll then take those eggs to these sinks, where we have 38-degree water. we keep it quite cold, so that we don't temperature-shock the eggs."

A worker uses forceps to pick out impurities and crushed eggs.

Caviar processor Rebecca Hanisch, right, in the processing room
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News

Caviar processor Rebecca Hanisch wears a parka, hairnet, facemask and boots. It's a very unFloridalike environment.

"I'm used to it now, but when I first started working in here, as opposed to working outside, it was freezing. It's mainly your hands that are cold, but I'm used to it now."

When asked if she looks forward to being in here in the summertime, she says, "I do, actually.  It's nice, instead of working outside, when it's 102."

I tasted some of the eggs - it has a silkiness to it, with just a hint of salt.

Michaels says it's graded on its color, it's firmness - how it pops in your mouth, and on its flavor. The larger the egg, the more it's worth.

Hanisch then scoops the eggs in sizes ranging from tiny vacuum-packed jars to large tins weighing one kilogram. Prices start at around $85 an ounce.

The sturgeon meat is considered a high-end delicacy. Michaels says it's shipped throughout the state, and every couple of weeks to markets in New York, Chicago and Boston.

"This is truly a farm to fork or farm to table model, where you have fresh product," he says. "We harvest to order on the meat, and if our customers call for it today, it comes out of the tanks, and it's at their table tomorrow or the next day."

But is it profitable?

"We're just transitioning from being part of a non-profit research lab to being part of a for-profit commercial entity," Michaels says. "And we're reaching that cusp as we speak. We're just starting to roll out our new Black Opal label and our product on the marketplace, and we fully expect that it's going to push us into profitability."

Health Earth isn't stopping with caviar. They're also collaborating with Mote Marine to develop a sustainable mullet industry. The roe of mullet, which is considered a lowly species, usually goes to waste, because there aren't any processing facilities in the state. So they're looking into producing sustainable sun-dried mullet roe, called bottarga, a delicacy prized in haute cuisine.

Black Opal caviar
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News