What’s small, whitish and farmed in Indiana?
For about four months, Roger Kelso and Brenda Young have been raising tens of thousands of them in above-ground swimming pools crowded into a Gnaw Bone machine shop.
Salt Creek Shrimp Co. is Kelso’s family farm.
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Young’s adult daughter, Heather Deckard, is working in sales and marketing. Son Heath Young and all the grandchildren help where needed.
In about a month, they expect their first crop will be ready to sell to anyone hungering for fresh-caught, live Pacific Whites that are a whole lot closer than the Pacific.
“It’s a variation on the subsistence farming people have done around here for over 100 years,” Kelso said. “I’m just trading shrimp instead of trading milk or something else.”
Though the business isn’t officially open, it has been attracting attention. When they hung their sign last week, Heath Deckard said a lot of neighbors slowed down to look.
As he spoke, the driver of a silver Chevy did just that: Stopped in the middle of Old State Road 46 and stared at it, a shrimp company among auto repair garages.
“It’s a rarity. It’s not what you think you’d find in Gnaw Bone,” he said.
Kelso is banking on the intrigue. With his estimate of 2 million to 3 million people passing on nearby State Road 46 each year, “it’s just too big of a market to miss.”
More than corn
The supply of U.S.-farmed shrimp can’t meet the demand, Young and Kelso said.The shrimp you buy in a grocery store are probably coming from India, Indonesia and Ecuador. They were the top exporters this year, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture.The most recent census of aquaculture — in 2005 — showed 925 crustacean farms across the country. Six farms were selling shrimp in Indiana.
Now, about a dozen shrimp farms operate in the state, many of them in converted swine barns, Kelso said. He and Young visited several in northern Indiana.
He said the demand is coming from high-end chefs who like to vary their menus, from travelers looking for local products to try, and from an increasingly diverse population in the Midwest.
“It’s not a feed-100-people or everyday thing. It’s a luxury item,” Kelso said.
There’s an audience for that in Brown County, where visitors are accustomed to spending a little more on artisan products they can’t get everywhere else and seeing how they were made, the couple said.
However, Kelso sees the eventual market for Salt Creek Shrimp — besides walk-in customers and maybe farmers markets — as wholesale. He’s already projecting that, next fall, the company is going to have to build a new home. He thinks they’ll need about a half-acre to produce about 150,000 pounds of shrimp a year and could employ about 15 people, including the four of them.
But right now, everyone but Kelso is keeping their day jobs: Deckard in a Bloomington doctor’s office, Heath Young as assistant manager at the Abe Martin Lodge and Brenda Young as Nashville clerk-treasurer.
Learning the ropes
Kelso doesn’t know all there is to know about the shrimpin’ business yet, but he’s getting there.He’s worked around water and wastewater systems since he was 17. He was town superintendent and then town manager for 16 years, overseeing Nashville’s water, sewer and street departments.He’s also an engineer. For the past five years he was traveling to the Middle East to design infrastructure systems. One project was designing filtration for a massive dolphin habitat in Egypt so it wouldn’t affect waters famous for skindiving.
His travel schedule prompted him to resign from the Nashville Town Council in 2010.
Last year, Young asked him to think about what he could do in Brown County, where both of their families have roots back to the 1800s.
His answer: aquaculture. And then more specifically: “I’m gonna do shrimp.”
“I thought they were joking,” said Deckard, who heard about it last spring.
Kelso started building a large test tank in the garage, a variation on the aquariums he has always enjoyed.
He bought a batch of Gulf Pinks to see if he could really grow them. Though they are now quite big, those guys won’t be sold; they’re pets.
The crop growing in Gnaw Bone don’t have names, because there are about 80,000 of them. They do, however, get entertainment: Some Latin music — since that’s the part of the world where they’re from — and some NPR on the radio.
“Their lifespan is pretty short. … They should be healthy and happy,” Kelso said.
Circle of life
A new shipment of about 30,000 shrimp arrive from the Florida Keys every 28 days. They’re the size of mosquito larvae, weighing one-thousandth of a gram.They start their lives in the “nursery” — warm, shallow pools where they can be monitored for health and weight. There, they grow to about 10 times their original size.After three to six weeks when they start molting — like “kids leaving their clothes around,” as Kelso puts it — they’re moved to a grow-out tank, or “grade school” — a 3-foot-deep rubber swimming pool with an open top.
When feed is sprinkled on the surface, they bubble to the top like tiny, translucent fish.
Next, they graduate to another large swimming pool with a domed net over it. They can jump surprisingly high, and they’re fast; in the wild, they’re swimming from squid, Kelso said.
The shrimp are fed soy meal and vitamins — no antibiotics or steroids, Kelso said. They also feed off the material growing in the tank.
Growth from larvae to table-ready takes about four months.
They hope their first crop will be ready to sell in mid-January. They estimate that within about an hour of calling or ordering through their website, customers could come and pick them up, live on ice.
Kelso is already talking about diversifying the ecosystem, such as raising oysters or tilapia.
He’s also looking into growing shrimp food — soybeans or other vegetables — and thinking about how nearly every part of the operation could recycle into another part, from the molts to the water.
“He’s an environmental engineer. This is really fun for him,” Brenda Young said.
“There’s going to be another 2 billion people in the world by the end of this century,” Kelso rattles off. “Most of the fisheries have just about been exhausted, if they’re not already. There’s going to be a need for places to get cheap protein. And so another goal of ours, or interest, is participating in the growth of that industry, where we’ll be the next link in the food chain for the next 20 or 30 years.”
Right now, though, Kelso is just happy he’s home. And so is his family.
“I didn’t realize it until the other day, my grandson told me that I seem to be alive and doing things in the evening, being more silly,” Kelso said.
“It was so delightful a couple nights ago, everybody was down here doing a little bit of everything. … It starts to address more of the lifestyle issues that I want to get to, as well.”
He thinks the business meshes with the fabric of Brown County.
“We’ve got a craft brewery, we’ve got craft distillery. Now, this is just another craft to do,” Kelso said.
As Brown County painters and potters did before him, “You can find your place.”