Anderson's Minnow Farm is the largest facility of its kind in the whole damn world. So there.
Two hundred miles of levees impound six thousand acres of ponds wherein are raised principally three species: goldfish, shiners and fathead minnows. That's a lot of bait, folks, and business must be good, because the men in this picture are pouring cement into forms to make three new holding tanks.
It is tempting to make light of the minnow industry. There is something comical about being the king of the minnows, the largest producer of the smallest thing. If this were a catfish farm or a trout farm or if Anderson raised koi, I might not even have included this article on my website. Yet, this aquaculture operation is a ranch just as if these six thousand acres were being grazed by cattle (Incidentally, the levees ARE grazed by cattle.). This is real serious industrial farming and these cement tanks looked to me like they held more minnows than water. The tanks will be drained into specially equipped trucks and shipped off to markets.
Most of these minnows and goldfish are destined to be drowned individually, impaled on a brass hook. Others will become ornamental pets. Still others, the fathead minnows mainly, will be exposed to industrial effluents and their death rates will inform us about the impact of industry on the environment. Those that survive environmental testing will be disposed of "humanely." There. It is possible to be morbid about minnows.
Up until about five years ago, the management would give guests a guided tour of the place. I'm told that insurance considerations have put an end to that practice. Still, they let me wander around the property unescorted, and I met a family of four that was being shown around by one of the employees. Anderson's Minnow Farm is on highway 70 west of Lonoke.
Note that the ponds in the bottom photo are not part of the minnow farm. They are part of the Joe Hogan State Fish Hatchery a couple of miles away. Joe Hogan Hatchery (named for the first Supervisor of Fisheries, who started this hatchery back in 1929) is the largest state-owned warm-water fish hatchery in the country. The ponds look essentially the same as those on Anderson's minnow farm, and I could take this picture from a tower on the Game and Fish land. Ground-level photos on this flat coutry give you a great view of the horizon and a poor view of pretty much everything else.
I turned up this information on minnow farming while researching catfish aquaculture. According to Dr. Nathan Stone of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Aquaculture Extension, eighty percent of all farm-raised baitfish in the U.S. come from the three Arkansas counties of Lonoke, Prairie and Pulaski. The whole baitfish industry in Arkansas consists of Anderson's and maybe a half dozen other farms.
I got some more on the story of the origins of this industry. At the end of World War II Fay Anderson of Mississippi got a G.I. loan to buy a bulldozer which he used to build farm ponds for the Agriculture Department. He noticed wild minnows appearing in the ponds and began considering the marketing possibilities. As long as he had the dozer he might as well scoop out some ponds for his dad, himself and his brothers. And if these minnows survived in the Ag Department farm ponds with no special care, then they should do at least as well in his own minnow-specialized ponds.
He was a hundred percent prescient, and before long demand for his feeder goldfish and shiners exceeded his ability to supply them. There was a problem generally with shiners in that they often died in transport, but Anderson's shiners were always sturdy and lively. In fact, they were maybe a little too lively. If you did anything to excite them you might have trouble keeping them contained in your bait bucket. It was a real problem. Fishermen didn't want to spend their hard earned money on live baitfish that are bound to end up high and dry as soon as they're not being watched. Then one day in 1949, during a shiner shortage, a farmer from Lonoke called Anderson and offered baitfish that had been trapped in his rice field when water came in from the bayou. Anderson came and got them, discovered that they were a variety of golden shiner that looked like the very popular Mississippi variety but were a little less gymnastic and didn't suffer much from confinement in a bait bucket or holding tank.
He had based his success heretofore on the principle of raising native Mississippi species in their native Mississippi location. Therefore to raise the Lonoke County minnows, he bought land and built ponds in Lonoke County, and that's how the world's largest baitfish operation began. Like so many commercial empires, there was no great moment of inspiration, no leap into the financial unknown, no unreasonable risk. Nobody even realized it was particularly special until years after it happened. Consider the survival advantages of a growing venture not attracting the attention of larger commercial empires.
Another thing that allowed the minnow biz to go fifty years essentially unchanged is that consolidation doesn't increase efficiency. This is a very simple industry -- farmer to trucker to bait shop to customer. And the trucks are owned either by the farmer or the bait shop. Nobody's making his living solely by transporting minnows. So the transactions go farmer to bait shop and then out the door. Second, there are no national bait shop chains to pool their buying power and drive down minnow prices. So the stores can't squeeze the farmers. Third, as explained above, raising minnows isn't all that damn hard and they will spontaneously appear in any hole or ditch that can be made to hold water for a few months. If a minnow rancher cartel develops, it's just not going to last because if I can keep a bathtub full of clean fresh water I can get in there and compete. If I'm a bait shop owner and goldfish prices get high enough, it becomes lucrative to grow my own.
So if minnows grow easily everywhere what's the trick that keeps these Arkansas operations ticking?
Timing, according to Neal Anderson. The ability to deliver the size of baitfish the bait shop owner wants in exactly the numbers that his customers will buy. For example, in the winter months northern bait shops buy "four pound" minnows from us. The designation means that a thousand minnows of this size weigh four pounds. These are about two inches long, and Michigan and Minnesota bait shops figure it's easier to send an oxygenated, refrigerated tank truck down here than to gather minnows from beneath their own frozen ponds. Most buyers send their own trucks. They're particular about the size of the minnows, and since fishing is seasonal, timing is critical. If you've got exactly what they want exactly when they want it, you stay in business. If you don't keep track of the specifics of what each season requires in each region of the country, then you end up growing a lot of fish you can't sell. If you've got three pounders now, by the time they're four pounders it'll be walleye season up north and they'll want six pounders.
Location is another advantage the Grand Prairie has in the baitfish game. This is the northernmost location at which winter freezes don't much affect the ponds. Go just a few miles north and you're in the Ozarks and temperatures average a few degrees cooler. A few miles east and you're in the Smokies. Same thing. If you're in Minnesota and you need minnows for ice fishing, Anderson's is the nearest location that's sure to have harvestable fish.
RTJ -- 1/9/2004
Hutchinson, Joyce, "Anderson Minnow Farm in business in Arkansas since the 1040's," The Aquaculture News. (Unsure of date. I got this photocopy from Bo Collins and the top was cut off.)
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (date SECpg:col) 05/07/72 E4:1, 01/25/88 C1:1