WILLMAR — A unique working relationship between a former dairy farmer from Blomkest, two former poultry farmers from Danube and a high-tech engineering company in Willmar could produce the first commercial-scale saltwater shrimp to be born, raised and processed in Minnesota.
There are some moving pieces to the puzzle to fit together yet, but the picture looks promising.
“We’re just having fun,” said Paul Damhof, who started growing and selling shrimp in his converted dairy barn in 2017 at his wildly successful business, Simply Shrimp. Although it’s been shut down since COVID, Damhof is planning to build a new shrimp-growing operation next year and intends to install equipment recently developed by Nova-Tech Engineering in Willmar that can remove the veins, heads, legs and shells from fresh, market-ready shrimp.
But Damhof is also knee-deep in research with his business partner, Barb Frank, to breed shrimp and sell the babies to shrimp farmers around the globe to help meet a growing demand for 21-day-old baby shrimp that farmers raise to market weight.
Bruns now operates the Shrimp Shop, and Frank teamed up with Damhof to create the shrimp hatchery, called Minnesota Shrimp, which is on the cusp of becoming operational with the capacity to produce at least 100 million baby shrimp every year. Frank thinks it’s closer to 200 million.
If all goes well, the shrimp hatched in Blomkest will not only be raised at the Shrimp Shop and Simply Shrimp but at shrimp farms all over the United States and Canada and beyond.
And — if all goes according to plan — equipment developed by Nova-Tech will be used to process shrimp raised in Minnesota and around the world.
Nova-Tech CEO Jim Sieben said the ShrimpWorks equipment, which uses patented, automated technology to process fresh shrimp, will be marketed to shrimp farms worldwide — much like Nova-Tech’s equipment that’s used in 600 poultry hatcheries in 58 countries on six continents.
This type of ingenuity, imagination, hard work, partnerships and willingness to take risks could put land-locked west central Minnesota on the saltwater shrimp map.
The fact that this is happening amid corn, soybean and traditional livestock farms absolutely thrills Damhof.
Beginning with babies
Damhof and Bruns were going great guns raising saltwater shrimp at their individual farms; everything they raised was netted fresh that day and sold live to on-the-farm customers.
But a persistent problem was finding sources for the tiny baby shrimp, called post larval shrimp, or PLs for short.
Most of the time these PLs, which are the size of an eyelash, were shipped from Florida to the Minnesota shrimp-growing farms in a supply-and-demand see-saw.
Frustrated with relying on out-of-state companies that sometimes left them without new PLs to grow to market weight to sell to hungry local consumers, Damhof and Frank began researching how to raise baby shrimp in Minnesota.
When COVID-19 hit, the PL pipeline was shut down countrywide.
With no baby shrimp to be found, Damhof shut down Simply Shrimp and Bruns shut down the Shrimp Shop.
“It’s a steep learning curve,” said Damhof, in reference to getting shrimp larvae, which are three-fourths the size of a mosquito larva, to survive for 21 days so they can be moved to grow-out farms.
“We thought growing the algae was going to be the hardest,” said Frank. “But raising the babies has turned into the hardest piece.”
They’re learning by trial and error and getting close to launching the hatchery, which may take 1 ½ years to reach capacity.
Where the magic happens
Everyday around 10 a.m. the lights go low, which triggers the mating scene in the six tanks where the pairs of shrimp are housed.
“That’s when the magic happens,” said Frank.
A couple hours later, using a big-beamed flashlight, Damhof and Frank can spot females that have mated because the bright orange eggs can be seen through the shrimp’s shell.
The female is moved to a spawning tank and within a couple hours she releases her eggs, which are no bigger than a barely visible dot in the water.
The tens of thousands of eggs released by that one female are moved to a new tank with pristine water that’s balanced with colorful saltwater algae that grow in 5-foot-tall containers housed in a sterile room.
Helping the new hatches thrive has been challenging as the Minnesota Shrimp team performs a strict feeding schedule, tests the water and examines tiny PLs under the microscope.
There are no how-to manuals for raising PLs inland and Damhof said he and Frank have relied on academic journals, past successes and new “ah-ha moments.”
Fed a gourmet diet that includes squid, bloodworms and krill, the shrimp in the breeding tanks are huge – about 100 grams – compared to the typical market weight of 22-25 grams.
Unlike other livestock farms that can raise their own pigs or cows as replacement brood stock, Minnesota Shrimp is not allowed to do that because the breeding pairs they purchase from Hawaii have patented genetics. So every 4-6 months, Minnesota Shrimp must purchase new pairs of breeding stock.
Currently, the tiny PLs grow in a small nursery tank during this research phase, but once the process is perfected, the baby shrimp will grow in six brand-new gleaming white raceway tanks. Measuring about 25 by 15 feet, each tank – which Damhof calls a “lazy river” – holds 4,500 gallons of water.
After 21 days the PLs will be bagged up and sent to shrimp farms to grow to market weight.
When they reach full capacity, it’s expected that about 10% of the PLs raised by Minnesota Shrimp will be used by the Shrimp Shop and Simply Shrimp. The rest of the PLs will be sold.
“There’s a worldwide shortage of babies,” said Damhof. “Getting rid of the babies will not be a problem.”
“I say I raise water and the shrimp are the by-product,” said Bruns, hinting at the complexity of creating the right environment for shrimp.
Bruns said she’ll hit the ground running with her new setup as soon as she gets PLs from up the road in Blomkest, which will be a big improvement from waiting for them to be shipped from Florida.
Damhof has building plans ready to go for his new growing facility, where he also intends to use PLs born on his farm. When they reach market weight, he intends to process the fresh shrimp with equipment developed and made in Willmar.
When it comes to bringing the shrimp industry to west central Minnesota farm country, Frank gives all the credit to Damhof and his family. “He did a heck of a lot of research for raising shrimp,” she said.
Their mutual dream now is to help other displaced livestock farmers who may have empty dairy or poultry barns turn that unused space into shrimp farms.
In the future, she said they may write a handbook to help guide others into the field of raising shrimp in Minnesota to help diversify local agriculture.
This story was originally published in the West Central Tribune's IMPACT edition on Oct. 23, 2021. More stories in this section can be found at https://issuu.com/westcentraltribune/docs/impact_2021