From a “TechKnow” special report on shrimp farming for “Real Money with Ali Velshi.”
There’s a jumbo problem for the shrimp business—a world with a huge appetite for the seafood and an industry racing to keep up.
Shrimp is big business. This year could set a record price per pound, with U.S. sales projected to top $6 billion. Americans eat an average of 4 pounds per person every year—but over 90 percent is imported, mostly from Southeast Asia, and dogged by environmental concerns and questions about the use of antibiotics. And the supply of U.S. shrimp is tight: there’s a ban on summer shrimping in the Gulf of Maine because of dwindling stocks, plus a smaller than average catch in the Gulf of Mexico this season.
“TechKnow” contributor and biologist Phil Torres visits a small Midwestern mom and pop farm that may fuel a revolution in shrimp farming. RDM Aquaculture is 600 hundred miles from the nearest ocean, surrounded by corn and windmills and soybeans. Tucked away in tiny Fowler, Ind., spouses Karlanea and Darryl Brown pioneered an indoor system with zero waste that hasn’t needed a water change in its four years.
“We do nine tests every single day,” Karlanea explains to Phil. “Temperature, dissolved oxygen, nitrite, co2 salinity, alkalinity, Ph, ammonia and flock. Basically we’re not even shrimp farmers anymore—we call ourselves guardians of water.”
Most shrimp farms don’t keep water that long—and the Browns didn’t mean to. “We just found out that the older it gets the better it gets,” Karlanea says, comparing it to a wine that matures.
It’s called a heterotrophic system—a cyclical eco-system that recycles nutrients and waste, adding nothing more than feed, baking soda and sea salt. The brown color, Karlanea explains, is the bacteria: “The bacteria is what eats all their waste so they can survive without a major filter system.”
With 16 run-of-the-mill backyard pools as growing tanks, the Browns have an impressive 90 percent survival rate—a third higher than most farms—which has impressed even skeptical experts. “They’re very much the innovators in this,” says Purdue University’s Bob Rode. “The biggest challenge is being there every day. It’s just another agriculture enterprise.”
At 10 cents a head, RDM sells about 180,000 immature shrimp a month to a dozen “growing” farms, and another 400 pounds directly to walk-ins each month, at $19 dollars a pound.
There are about 2 dozen shrimp farms like RDM, some of which the Browns helped set up. Darryl says, “We share because the more shrimp we have, the more farmers we have, the more beneficial it is for everybody.”
Because their system is indoors they have three to four harvests a year, rather than one. Right now the Browns can’t keep up with demand. Several Chicago restaurants want their shrimp, and they’re in talks with a major supermarket chain in Indiana.
By the way, they’re running the entire farm on a one-horse power generator. If you want the Browns to help you set up your own indoor heterotrophic farm, it’ll cost you about $120,000 for eight tanks and additional equipment—plus bacteria and the Browns’ advice.