Bascom sturgeon farm owner travelled a (very) long way to get here
Almost a decade before the "Winds of Change" blew down the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union collapsed, Mark Zavlavsky, then a 29-year-old student in the Ukraine, had a yearning for freedom that would not wait. Although the Communists in the USSR, which was his homeland, wouldn't tell him much about it, he must have known somehow it was "Morning in America" as he began his "Rendezvous with Destiny," to use two of President Ronald Reagan's favorite phrases. It was 1980 and Reagan was just a candidate then, and Mark was just a student. "I knew that America was a free country," Mark told the Jackson County TIMES last week, "but I didn't know much more because we weren't allowed to watch Hollywood movies and the only books we could read about it were some such as the works of James Fennimore Cooper. But I also knew there was nothing good about the Soviet Union, and that freedom and liberty did not exist there. I knew I wanted to leave."
During a brief window of opportunity that closed just after he escaped, Mark applied for a student visa to the Czech Republic. Once there, he travelled to Vienna, Austria, where he applied for political asylum at the American Embassy. He was told to pick a city and he chose Miami, Florida. He didn't know it at the time, but Miami was a perfect immigration town with plenty of tolerance, jobs and opportunityâ€”all this country had to offer, in fact. Reagan was about to launch the longest period of sustained prosperity in USA history. For those willing to work, the American Dream was at hand.
As the story he has oft repeated goes, he came to Miami with less than $50 in his pocket and worked at jobs including dishwasher. But he had not forgotten what he learned back home and he was quite aware of what was happening all around him. So, with others, he managed to open a small business, using his knowledge of ethnic foods. In 1985, he and Mark Gelman started the "Marky's" gourmet foods business and the rest is history. Just go to www.Markys.com ; they did about $20 million worth of business last year, selling items such exotic foods as foie gras, truffles and caviar.
The best caviar comes from the roe of the beluga sturgeon, and some years ago Mark learned of the beluga sturgeon crisis in its native habitat, the Caspian Seaâ€”near Mark's old stomping grounds. It seemed that overfishing and dam constructions were killing off the species. He began importing what sturgeon he could get and began raising them in Florida. The US Fish and Wildlife Service stopped the importation and sale of beluga and its caviar in 2005 because of the shortage, but Zavlavsky had begun importing live beluga and other Caspian sturgeon in 2003, so he already had a supply. He still can't sell it, but he has a solution in mind. He is very hopeful that the US will accept his application to proceed because he has agreed to the usually prohibitive US stipulation that his operation demonstrate a "benefit to the species in the wild."
Zavlavsky will be returning to Russia in September to meet with officials in Russia and Azerbaijan in order to put more beluga sturgeon back where they belongâ€”in the Caspian Sea itself.
The Russian immigrant, who has long since become an American citizen, has already increased the economy of the Bascom area. He bought 120 acres off Tower Road just east of town in 2009 for just over $500,000. There are now more than 120,000 sturgeon there of several species at all stages of growth, including many just two months old and the older giants in excess of 300 pounds. He said he has spent $5 million at the Bascom farm so far. The hundreds of water-filled tanks of various sizes are cleaned daily. There are four generators on site, in case of a local power failure. A tall oxygen tower keeps the tanks oxygenated, just like in a home fish tank. Most all the labor is local. County Commissioner Kenney Stevens, who runs a land-clearing business, did some of the initial work and Jimmie Williams Dozier Service is currently building a seven-acre pond among the others. Grand Ridge subcontractor Ronald Clark has worked there for years erecting the buildings and doing the plumbing. Also there are now six fulltime laborers, among the 15 employees of Sturgeon Aqua farms. Some of them live in the old farm house on Tower Road.
Zavlavsky wants to do as much as he can at the Bascom Farm; he says he has just a few more buildings to build for several more large tanks in which to grow the fish. That's why he's asking the Northwest Florida Water Management District for permission to dramatically increase the daily draw of water from the Floridan Aquifer system, the underground water supply. That seven-acre lake needs to be filled, he said, so they can draw the cool water from the bottom for the fish tanks. The company says most of the water will be returned to the aquifer, as pristine as the way it came.
Eventually, Zavlavsky, 60, wants to leave the Miami area and live on the Bascom property. He says he enjoys the weather and the beauty of the countryside. During a tour of the facility last Friday, he showed the TIMES the roses he is growing with the help of some of the fish waste products. He's also delighted at several baby ducks growing in the holding ponds. "This is as green as it gets," he said.