No Ocean? No Problem! Indoor Shrimp Farming Takes Off In Landlocked Midwest

Mar 1, 2016

Farm-grown shrimp await their fate at RDM Aquaculture near Fowler, Indiana
Credit Sarah Fentem / WBAA

A lot of places have claimed to be the so-called “Shrimp capital of the world,” including Brunswick, Georgia, Morgan City, Louisiana, and, most recently, Mazatlán, Mexico.

More than 2000 miles north of Mazatlán, though, shrimp farmers in Indiana are working to add the Hoosier State to that list. The state is home to a growing number of what are known as “inland shrimp farms.”

RDM Aquaculture in Benton County is one such operation. When it opened in 2009, there were only a few other terrestrial shrimp farms in the entire country. Now there are close to thirty, with several in Indiana.

Even on a punishingly cold 15-degree February afternoon, a blast of hot, humid air hits visitors as they enter the facility…it feels like walking into an indoor pool room.

RDM sells a lot of its shrimp directly out of this front lobby. Along with a gaggle of dogs, the aquarium-lined room holds a small shark, a lazy turtle, and, on one wall, a tank with a shrimp specimens approximately the size of bratwursts.

Shrimp exist in most Midwesterners’ minds as pink, curled knuckles resting on the side of a glass filled with cocktail sauce. But Shrimp farmers like Karlanea Brown, who owns RDM with her husband, Darryl, want to change that.

"You’re taking something that’s normally grown outside, and we’re being able to grow it indoors and able to do it in a clean, healthy way that’s not hurtful to the actual product and it’s not hurtful to us,” she says.

RDM sells its shrimp whole, heads and all. They pack them into plastic bags live and advise customers to eat them within a few days.

Darryl Brown’s family originally made its living with more traditional Indiana livestock, such as hogs. But he says the growing size of many farms is pushing out smaller operations.

“A hog operation, you have to be at a certain scale to afford infrastructure and buildings that it’s going to take to produce the animals,” Darryl Brown says.

That means small- and medium-scale farmers find it tougher to make a profit.

“The days of throwing a couple hog in your back pasture, or a cow or two, you’ll never make any money out of it, there’s no profit in it,” he says.

This is why indoor shrimp farming makes a lot of sense in landlocked central Indiana. It can be done profitably, but on a small scale with a batch of shrimp grown and sold about every quarter.

That doesn’t mean shrimp farming is easy, though. A tour of RDM’s facility is a testament to the amount of chemistry knowledge needed to re-create the warm, saltwater condition in which the creatures thrive.

Each year in RDM’s back warehouses, more than 6,000 pounds are raised for Hoosier dinner tables and another two million shrimp babies are grown for sale to other operations. They grow them inside temperature-controlled rooms in blue 4000-gallon swimming pools—the same four-foot deep ones lots of people buy for their backyards.

RDM is in the process upgrading their facilities. Soon, the pools will be replaced with fiberglass containers. RDM is also branching into hydroponics and crawfish, and Karlanea says the company is interested in raising tilapia, too.

The startup costs for shrimp farms like this can also be immense, especially if someone doesn’t know what they’re doing. Entire flocks of shrimp can die when, for example, the saltwater in a tank is incorrect, or a generator fails. And creating a sub-tropical climate makes for some pretty serious heating bills.

The Browns’ success has led them to consult for other prospective shrimp farmers across the United States and has raised Indiana’s profile in the seafood industry, says Bob Rhode, Manager of Purdue University’s aquaculture research lab.

“People can reach out, touch it, smell it taste it, and talk to somebody about it,” he says. "And if they feel they need advice they can hire consulting services…I think that’s what centered it on Indiana,” he says.

On this day, Rhode is leading a sold-out one-day shrimp farming workshop. There are more than 70 people at this standing-room-only workshop, a testament to the interest in the industry. There are the standard plaid-shirt-and-feed-hat-types, but there are also couples and young people who have never farmed before, too, all patiently taking notes through lectures such as “day and night fluctuations of oxygen levels and ammonia concentrations in your biofloc.”

If this sounds confusing….well, Rhode says that’s the point.

“If they go in there and water quality is over their head, maybe they should re-evaluate what they’re thinking about,” he says.

Scott Tyson, a two-year shrimp farmer attending the workshop, says he’s had a lot of trouble with achieving balanced chemicals in his water.

“It’s a very tough, tough business to get into,” Tyson says. “You have to pay attention to a lot of details.”

He says there’s one side effect of shrimp farming he wasn’t expecting:

“Once you taste farm-raised shrimp indoors,” he starts, and chuckles. “…We can’t even eat shrimp at a restaurant no more.”

Tyson has sold some of his shrimp to farm-to-fork restaurants and farmers’ markets, an example of the local food movement that has been supporting the industry, particularly in the wake of a well-publicized investigation from the Associated Press released late last year that revealed slave labor behind some of the shrimp showing up in stateside grocery stores.

“People want to know where their fish come from,” Rhode says, “and that it’s free of pesticides, that they can meet the person who produces it. I think that’s part of the push.”

Rhode says he’s somewhat concerned a boom in production might outstrip demand. He doesn’t want to see another “llama situation” occur, referring to a craze a decade ago when it became trendy to farm llamas and alpacas.

But he says for now, the strength of the local food movement makes Indiana shrimp increasingly appetizing to entrepreneurs.