Rocky Allen’s lobster farm — a long, skinny building filled with tanks heated by a wood-fired furnace — sits in a gravelly slope, nestled between two fields of black Angus cattle.
“Just have a light lunch before you get here, lady,” Allen told me over the phone before I drove out to see him. “Then we’ll see if we can catch you some supper.”
Crystal Bridge Farm, named for Allen’s daughters Crystal and Bridget, is about 30 miles outside of Louisville in Ballardsville, Kentucky. It’s an area where old silos and budding subdivisions exist side-by-side just off the two-lane road — the kind of road that sometimes gets blocked by a stalling industrial-sized tractor.
When I pull up, Allen and his nine-year-old grandson, Kingston, are sitting on the porch waiting for me.
“Kingston, take her back to show her the broodstock,” Allen says.
After cautioning me to watch my step — the building is covered in mousetraps because the bags of feed attract rodents — Kingston shows me a tank filled with small, blue and red lobsters.
They alternate between scurrying along the concrete floor of the tank, and nestling together in a pyramid made of cut black drainage pipe, a structure Kingston refers to as their “condos.”
Even though he has yet to graduate elementary school, Kingston already knows much more about aquaculture than Allen did when he first started.
To hear Allen tell it, his foray into aquaculture was almost by chance. About 20 years ago, he was badly injured in a logging accident. After that, Allen and his wife, Tammy, needed to find other ways to use their six acre cattle-farm.
“We just started raising fish in the ponds and then, you know, we talked with University of Kentucky and they said ‘we got a new fish doing real well called tilapia,’” Allen says. “We didn’t even know what tilapia was. We didn’t know what freshwater prawn were until we started foolin’ with ‘em.”
Despite that, Allen — a burly guy in his 60s who ends many of his sentences by calling me “lady,” — says business did really well.
“They did extra good,” Allen says. “Most of my tilapia sell live.”
So about five years ago, he bought a dozen lobsters from a high school aquaculture program in Spencer County.
“Two males and 10 females, some foolishness like that,” he says, laughing.
And then, he bought another batch from a farmer in Alabama. With some help from the Kentucky State University aquaculture program, he set up the tanks with systems to monitor heat, oxygen and ammonia levels.
Now, there are several thousand lobsters — a red claw variety that originated in Australia — of various ages in the tanks at one time.
From Tank to Table
I’d heard about Allen’s red claws a few weeks earlier while at dinner with some friends at Harvest. It was about 9 p.m. — just as the dining room symphony of rocking knives and clinking dishware was softening — when Chef Patrick Roney slipped out of the kitchen with a deep ceramic bowl. He pushed aside our half-finished plates and set it in the middle of the table.
Inside, meaty, saffron-tinged lobster ravioli drifted in creamy, blush-colored broth.
“Try this,” Roney said, arching an eyebrow and jerking his head toward the clean spoons he’d brought out with the bisque. And we did — taking turns clumsily fishing for tender pasta and lumps of claw-meat until there was nothing left.
That’s when he told me about his “local lobster guy, Rocky.”
Roney met Allen several years back while Roney was still working as a chef at the Oak Room in the Seelbach. Allen came into the kitchen one day with a case of his lobsters for Roney to test.
“We took the tail off and cooked it in a little bit of butter and it was absolutely fantastic,” Roney says. “Really clean flavor, not like a muddiness of a crawfish.”
When Roney moved to Harvest, he made sure Allen’s Red Claws came with him. He says Allen is the type of guy who always makes you smile — both because he is so excited about his product, and because of some of his personality quirks.
“He’s always got a Starburst in his pocket — a couple of Starbursts that he’s handing you as you are having a conversation,” Roney says. “So whenever he comes in, I always remember later in the night, ‘Oh yeah, there’s a couple Starbursts in here.’ So after service I have a little sweet.”
A Different Kind of Family Farm
Allen’s lobster operation has grown considerably since he first started selling to Roney, but it hasn’t been a seamless endeavor. Learning to raise a species non-native to landlocked Kentucky has been a process of trial and error.
“I’ve killed more fish and lobsters than most people ever see,” Allen says. “I mean, I killed a tank of babies two or three months ago. I don’t know if my air got low or my ammonia got too high on me. I don’t know…”
He sighs before finishing his thought: “But you know it’s a sick feeling when you know you lost — that tank was loaded heavy — probably three or four thousand.”
But, overall, Allen’s aquaculture set-up is profitable. And it plays into a national trend of using monitored aquaculture with alternative feeds as a way of ensuring sustainable fishing practices — though that’s not something Allen is too worried about.
For him, it’s a business — a new kind of family farm, if you will — that could be passed down through the generations. Perhaps to his grandson.
“Who knows?” Allen says. “Probably have to change it to Kingston Freshwater Lobster as time goes on.”