Volgodonsk lobster: A popular gourmet item

Crayfish farming has been gaining popularity in Russia in recent years, especially in the southern regions with more favorable climate. Local farms usually breed Far Eastern and European crayfish; however, Alexander Nikulov, the founder of Rostov Lobster, decided to farm Australian redclaw in Volgodonsk in 2018. This type of crayfish has twice as much meat, which is also softer. Below, he shares how he got the idea of farming the exotic tropical crayfish and how the species should be cared for.

From landscaping to crayfish

Alexander Nikulov from southern Russia’s Rostov Region has been heading his own company, Flora-Service, for more than 20 years. His integrated landscaping business took orders from both municipalities and individuals. But the problem with landscaping was its being a seasonal job, which means the business was idle from the late fall to mid-spring. So, Alexander began to look for some year-round engagement options. He tried making plastic windows, swimming pools, and furniture, but none of those products enjoyed stable demand, and there was high competition on the market.

One day, the entrepreneur read on the internet about Australian red claw crayfish — a species with twice as much meat as ordinary crayfish caught in the Don in the Rostov Region had, the meat being dense and tender and tasting like lobster or shrimp. Alexander decided to try breeding such arthropods for sale. Before starting up his own farm, he solicited a consult from the Astrakhan Institute of Fisheries, Biology and Nature Management because the institute’s biologists had earlier brought this type of crayfish to Russia and developed the know-how for its breeding in artificial reservoirs.

The scientists provided Alexander with the technology and helped him develop a business plan geared toward the annual production of 10 tons of crayfish. The entrepreneur also did his research by reading articles and watching videos online to prepare for the launch. The preparations took about six months.

Long way to harvest

Alexander Nikulov posted jobs for crayfish farming specialists and a marketing and advertising manager on Avito. He also hired an accountant from his other business, Flora Service. While the hiring was in progress, he bought a building in Volgodonsk where he could install recirculating aquaculture systems. He obtained mandatory veterinary certificates, purchased juveniles whose health was evaluated at a regional veterinary center and started the farming. This is how Rostov Lobster came about.

Purchasing a farming location, equipment, building water tanks and creating ponds as well as training staff cost 20 mio rubles ($267K). Alexander had to invest his own savings and take out loans from banks and a local entrepreneurship support agency. Continuous professional training requires more funds (ichthyologists are rare so farm workers had to learn by doing) as do equipment upgrading, new types of fodder and prospectively, building another farm.

One year in, the farm produced a harvest of crayfish grown from the initially purchased juveniles. Half of the stock was sold and the other half was kept for breeding. Alexander found that breeding his own crayfish is cheaper and more cost-effective than buying new hatchlings every year. In 2020, the farm produced 2 tons of crayfish, which is still 8 tons short of the break-even point.

Inside the farm

The farm only uses recirculating aquaculture systems because they provide best water filtration and oxygen saturation. The systems are equipped with biological filters.

The farm workers built polypropylene water tanks by themselves; the water in the tanks is changed three times per hour. Alexander and his colleagues are gradually improving the technology: for instance, they build oval-shaped tanks instead of square ones as they found out that it is difficult to clean the corners.

Crayfish live in the tanks in the winter: their females lay eggs in December that hatch during the winter. In May, they are relocated to ponds filled with water from the irrigation canal that goes from the Tsimlyanskoye water reservoir. The crayfish’s diet consists of natural products: oatmeal, grains and mosquito larvae. Alexander and his colleagues even developed their own crayfish food that contains fish meal. Crayfish also feed on water bugs.

There are certain difficulties in breeding crayfish. For instance, the temperature and oxygen concentration in the water tank must be maintained at a certain level, otherwise the inhabitants might die. It can happen when the electricity is down, therefore power generators were installed in the tanks. Also, crayfish can eat each other when shedding, so they need to be relocated to another tank and brought back after they regrow their shells. Crayfish require round-the-clock monitoring. Rostov Lobster staff constantly learns how to take care of Australian crayfish.

Today’s business

In 2018-2019, Alexander used to sell live crayfish. In 2020, he invented a way to shock freeze them in a vacuum container for 1.5 hours at -50 degrees Celsius. To defrost them, one should put the crayfish under cold running water for 1-1.5 hours, and its taste will not be different than of a fresh one because it will retain all of its moisture. The technology has been tested, a relevant certificate received and the necessary equipment purchased.

Sales started with the use of the Avito classified advertisements website. The farm’s customers include restaurants and supermarkets. Despite the price of 1,200-1,500 rubles ($16-20) per kilogram, customers willingly purchase crayfish — although certain potential buyers find the price too high. Every year, the products are sold out very quickly; in 2020, Alexander started receiving orders from other regions — however, currently the farm cannot satisfy the demand, and Alexander is seeking to expand the production.

The pandemic has in no way affected the farm’s operating activities, with its personnel working to build ponds, pools, premises and buildings, as well as to improve crayfish storage technologies and master boiling and conservation methods.

Plans for moving forward

To attract more customers, Alexander is actively involved in business competitions and exhibitions. In 2020, his products won the Business Success competition; currently, the Rostov Lobster team is preparing for the all-Russian finals and hopes to win, which would help attract grant support. The company’s team also received the gold medal at the World Food exhibition, where its products won the Product of the Year award. To further take part in exhibitions, Alexander intends to build a stand that will showcase live crayfish.

The farm’s founder has plans to increase the annual crayfish production to 10 tons in 2021 and make supply contracts with restaurants, cafes and supermarket chains from different regions. To this end, Alexander intends to build the second farm and a processing facility. His plans include boosting production by 10 tons per year and reaching the annual volume of 45 tons within the next five years. Alexander is taking efforts to study advanced methods of crayfish farming on a regular basis, organize training for the farm’s personnel, select better feed and equipment, and master new methods for processing crayfish meat.

By Christina Firsova

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