ALBANY – An indoor saltwater shrimp farm has opened quietly in northern Delaware County and another is being built on the opposite end of the county.
“We’re sold out right now,” says Mark Lester of L&L Shrimp, 7929 E. Delaware County Road 900-N. “It’s a great problem to have.”
The number of Indiana mom-and-pop shrimp farms like Lester’s is rising because of high demand for the fresh, sweet, clean-tasting Pacific white shrimp.
Like most Hoosier shrimp farmers, Lester does retail sales out of the door at his farm, but his biggest customer is an Indianapolis ethnic food market filled with an assortment of specialty items from around the Pacific Rim.
Lester hauls 30 to 50 pounds of live shrimp to the market per week.
“Right now we have 11 shrimp farms in Indiana, and we’re putting up three more — one in Anderson, another one in Muncie and another near the Kentucky border,” says Benton County-based RDM Aquaculture co-owner Karlanea Brown, the matriarch of Indiana shrimp farmers. “Everybody likes to eat shrimp, and a lot of people are wanting to start their own business.”
The Star Press also has learned that a Hartford City plumbing contractor who bought Carolee’s Herb Farm in Blackford County plans to turn it into his residence and a shrimp farm (see separate story on Monday).
For those farmers who can stay in business past the first year, “the potential income is pretty good,” she said. “We forewarn everybody the first year is the hardest because the (shrimp) survival rate is not very good. After that, the survival rates start going up.”
L&L Shrimp sells for $16 a pound. They’re sold live. Lester welcomes drive-in customers. “I want all the customers I can get,” he told The Star Press. “I just want people to call ahead. But don’t shy away from asking.”
The shrimp farm that Brown referred to in Muncie is actually south of Muncie near Cowan. It is being established in a former horse barn by Lisa Dykhoff, president of Perfect Circle Credit Union in Hagerstown, and her husband, David, a skilled tradesman.
“Our projections are 400 pounds a month,” said Dykhoff, who grew up on a farm in Alexandria and plans to retire from her credit-union job in five years.“We’re starting small and can expand as we progress. Karlanea told us you have to manage your demand. You don’t need to be looking at a lot of advertising until you get synced up.”
L&L Shrimp isn’t doing a lot of advertising either.
Brown sells to “anyone who walks in the front door. They come from all over — Toledo, Michigan, Kentucky, Kansas. They come here and pick them up. We sell them live out the door. We get a lot of white tablecloth hotels and restaurants wanting to buy them. But we have oversold in the past. I’ve had to shut my doors twice. If we do it a third time, we’ll be out of business on the retail end.”
Brown and her husband, Darryl, used to raise hogs.
“I had to train my husband,” Brown said. “The mentality of a lot of farmers is the more you feed the hogs and cows the faster they grow. Shrimp don’t keep eating like a hog or chicken. When they’re done eating, they drop the feed. The feed can damage the water quality and the shrimp won’t survive.”
A Marion High School graduate, Lester earned a bachelor’s degree in aquatic biology and fisheries from Ball State University in 2006. A bass tournament angler, he spent his summers as a youth at his family’s cottage on Tippecanoe Lake. After college, he worked for six years at Bell Aquaculture, an industrial-size fish farm raising perch, salmon and trout in Albany.
“I hate going to the grocery store,” Lester says.
His wife, Julie, a Delta High School graduate who earned a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, cans all types of home-grown produce. The couple also raise their own pork, lamb and turkey and keep a flock of free-range chickens. One of their crops is horseradish they use to make shrimp cocktail sauce.
“I was a 10-year 4-H member,” Julie Lester said.
The couple built a new barn housing eight shrimp-rearing tanks that are 18-feet-in-diameter above-ground swimming pools. Bacteria that form colonies called bioflocs are cultured in the rearing tanks.
Shrimp feces is assimilated by the bacteria during intense aeration, according to the Aquaculture Engineering Society. Bacterial repackaging of the nutrients excreted by the shrimp makes them available for consumption by the shrimp, reducing feed costs. Biofloc also serves as a pollution-control technique to detoxify pollutants produced by the higher than normal densities of shrimp.
L&L Shrimp uses no hormones or antibiotics, discharges no water and produces no sludge that needs to be disposed of. It doesn’t process any shrimp, selling them all live.
Three Indiana shrimp farms have failed, Brown says. One expanded too quickly, and the heater went out at another. The water temperature needs to be kept at 80 to 85 degrees. The biggest obstacle to success is establishing the bacteria. “Once it’s established, the survival rates start going up,” Brown said.
Most shrimp caught or farmed in the U.S. and Canada are recommended as a “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” by Seafood Watch, a program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Wild-caught Pacific white shrimp from Mexico should be avoided because of poor management, illegal fishing and poor enforcement of regulations, the aquarium says. In addition, most imported, farmed Pacific white shrimp should be avoided because of habitat damage, the risk of pollution, the introduction of non-native species and disease. However, some Pacific white shrimp farms in Thailand reduce these risks, and shrimp from those farms is rated as a “Good Alternative.”
Besides delivering his own shrimp to Indianapolis, Lester hauls live tilapia raised at Tippco Fish near Lafayette to the Chinatown neighborhood of Chicago.
While Indiana’s aquaculture industry is small and can’t compete with low-priced imported and processed seafood products, the state has a comparative advantage to produce fish that can be sold live and fresh to ethnic markets at a premium, according to a study by Purdue University. The majority of live-fish-market customers in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio are Asians, some of whom were raised in families that bought live seafood.