3037 Weeden Creek Road, Sheboygan
Industry: Aquaculture equipment
Located just off I-43 on the far southern end of Sheboygan, Fresh-flo Corp. certainly isn’t one of the largest manufacturers in the state. But Barb Ziegelbauer and her team have carved out a piece of a unique market and ship Fresh-flo products around the world.
Fresh-flo primarily makes water aerating products for fish famers, hatcheries and private pond owners. The company’s product line also includes a fish grader and a unique bug light fish feeder.
“It’s a niche product in a niche market,” said Ziegelbauer, president of Fresh-flo.
The aerators are used to put oxygen into water and remove unwanted gases. It’s an important part of keeping fish alive when farmers are taking fish either to a restaurant, or a lake or stream.
“They want to put as many fish in that tank as they can,” Ziegelbauer said. “The guys that are really good at it will actually have more volume of fish than water in the tank.”
In addition to transport situations, the aerators are also used in ponds.
The fish graders are used by those raising more aggressive types of fish, where the larger ones will eat the smaller ones. The device measures and separates fish by width. Fresh-flo’s model is unique since it is adjustable without having to add in additional screens.
Ziegelbauer said about one-third of the company’s business is with state and federal fish hatcheries, and private fish farmers make up most of the remainder. Less than 5 percent of Fresh-flo’s business is in Wisconsin, but the company does sell to the state Department of Natural Resources, along with federal hatcheries in Wisconsin.
Fresh-flo also exports its products and has a distributor in Australia, although most exports go to Mexico and Canada. Ziegelbauer said Canadian shipments seem to fluctuate with the exchange rate. The Mexican government provides more support for its aquaculture industry, so customers are a little less concerned about exchange rates.
The company sells up to 900 of its aerators per year, along with a couple hundred graders. Ziegelbauer said when her family first got into the business in the 1990s, the expectation was growth in aquaculture would spur growth in the business. She said it has grown, but “it’s reflected the same way aquaculture has grown, and it’s by ones and twos.”
“There’s resistance out there,” Ziegelbauer said, pointing to the view of some that fish farmers pollute the water. She said the farms are so tightly regulated the water is often cleaner when they return it than when they first diverted it for their use. “You can’t grow fish in dirty water.”
“The people that are in, that have been in for a long time, are getting more efficient, so they’re growing more fish, so it’s growing that way, too,” she said.
Still, entering the fish farming market is a capital intensive decision and growth can be hard to come by for Fresh-flo. The company advertises in trade publications and attends some trade shows, although not as many as in the past.
“Because we’re so small, if I’m at a trade show, nobody’s answering the phone,” Ziegelbauer said. “So I have to weigh the value of the trade show versus ignoring all the rest of my customers.”
With just a handful of staff working part-time, Fresh-flo is forced to find the most economical methods of production. Motors are produced by another firm and some of the more complicated parts are machined by another supplier.
“We used to keep everything in-house because it was cheaper; now it’s not anymore” Ziegelbauer said, noting the rise of CNC machines has resulted in better parts, although Fresh-flo couldn’t afford to have one of its own.
The company does have its own custom-built test tank, capable of testing a variety of different power sources. Fresh-flo’s shop is also shared with another business in which the family is involved, Precision Roofing Services Inc., helping to ease the burden of some facility costs.
Being in a niche business, Fresh-flo feels the forces of trends and regulations at farms and restaurants.
“A lot of the farmers are getting real creative with how they market the end product,” Ziegelbauer said, with some getting into processing and others, like Rushing Waters Fisheries LLC in Palmyra, starting their own restaurants. “The restaurants are starting to see the value and demand farm-raised fish.”