Mark Hajek of rural Marion works full-time in Wichita as an electronic engineer, but when he heads for home, particularly in spring, it is likely he has fish farming on his mind.
“I enjoy watching the ponds broil when they feed,” Hajek said. “The water just comes alive.”
Hajek, also a traditional farmer with 160 acres, manages five quarter-acre fish growing ponds on his land. He reconstructed an old hog-farrowing barn as a holding facility for the thousands of fingerlings that filter through his hands each spring.
“I pretty much sell everything I handle,” Hajek said. “I used to raise all my own catfish but I just couldn’t keep up with the demand and the water usage.”
Hajek found it more economical to buy baby fish and feed them to selling weight and size at approximately 4 to 6 inches long, than to hatch and raise them.
Every year, from April 1 to middle of June, Hajek and his wife, Colleen, buy, grow, and sell more fish than they can count at Hajek Fish Farm.
“I raise and sell scale fish like bass, bluegill, and crappie, and then also minnows, catfish, and grass carp,” he said. “Just last month I was at Fish Days in El Dorado and sold over 8,000 fish in one day. And that did not include minnows which we move the most.”
While Hajek works at his day job in Wichita, his wife takes fish orders by phone at home. When he gets back to the farm, it is time to sort out purchase orders and deliver fish in their special tank compartment truck.
“For two and a half months each spring we are going 100 miles per hour,” he said. “Most of the fish we sell stay within a 100-mile radius.”
Hajek said there were other fish distributors in the state, but there was plenty of demand for his product. The hardest part was just keeping up.
“If you figure costs and input per acre, fish farming is much more profitable than cattle,” he said. “The most important thing is having a good source and plenty of water.”
Hajek started raising fish in 1987, learning the trade from his father-in-law, George Adrian of Andover.
“He taught me what he knew and helped me get started,” he said. “It has just really grown from there.”
The five ponds and refurbished hog barn are visible signs of Hajek’s hobby-gone-wild, but the main components of his success involve water and air.
“We use a lot of water,” Hajek said. “It is very important to change the water in our holding pits every three or four weeks.
He said the used holding water, which is loaded with fish food, silt, and feces, is pumped out onto the family gardens where it enhances vegetation growth.
“We don’t waste anything around here,” he said. “Even last year when it was so dry, our gardens were the best around.”
Just as important to healthy fish as fresh water is oxygen. Hajek uses blowers to force air into the holding tanks and provide plenty of oxygen for his fish.
“When I first started I just used an air blower off an old Ford truck,” he said. “That worked for about three years and then I had to get another one from a salvage yard. You do what you have to do to get by.”
If the air blowers go off, fish die in Hajek’s barn, so he installed a generator for times when electrical power was compromised.
“Keeping the air blowing is number one on my list of fish management,” he said.
Also high on Hajek’s list of management priorities is keeping predators at bay.
“Blue herons are my biggest enemy,” he said. “They, along with snakes, eat a lot of little fish down at the ponds.”
Raccoons are occasional problems in the barn pits where Hajek keeps many of his catfish fingerlings.
“A couple of years ago I had 500 lbs. of catfish in here and I didn’t have a buyer for all of them yet,” he said. “All of the sudden I noticed the numbers started going down and I started finding fish heads in strange places. I started trapping and caught eight raccoons in one week.”
Hajek said the raccoon problem goes in spurts, but he keeps a constant eye out for them. He also keeps an eye out for fungus and skin problems.
“I use a lot of salt,” he said. “The salt makes them produce slime on their bodies, which protects them from bumping and scraping against each other. I like slimy fish.”
Hajek said the mixing salt he added daily to holding tanks in his barn was non-iodized and very fine. He also used a product called bait-saver to keep his fish happy.
Though raising fish is a lot of work, Hajek said it was something he enjoyed doing.
“If I am going to have a hobby, it might as well be something that I can make some money at,” he said. “That’s the best kind of hobby to have.”