Think about farms in the Midwest, acres and acres of corn and soybeans. Now, picture instead fresh saltwater shrimp – shrimp. From member station WGLT, Daniel Hajek reports.Landlocked Midwestern farmers are finding ways to raise those shellfish far away from any ocean.
DANIEL HAJEK, BYLINE: David Steiner once dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. Growing up on a farm in Central Illinois, he was fascinated by the sea. As an adult, he decided to pursue the next best thing: raising saltwater shrimp in a refurbished machine shed behind his farm house.
DAVID STEINER: All right, should we head in?
HAJEK: Let’s go.
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HAJEK: Inside it feels like a steam room. Warm and humid and smelling salty. There’s a complex system of pipes here connecting to large pumps that re-circulate water throughout four above ground swimming pools. Inside each pool are more than 8,000 shrimp. Steiner grabs a net to fish out a few.
STEINER: These shrimp jump. So we have the net on it. Oop. See, I just had a shrimp in the dip net and it just jumped right out of the net. And that’s a good sign. That means the shrimp are healthy.
HAJEK: Healthy and big, some of those flailing around in the net are seven inches long. They’re white, almost transparent, with dark beady eyes. He gets these from a hatchery down in Florida where they take four months to mature. Once they’re big enough, Steiner sells them at local farmers markets or outside his home.
JESSE TRUSHENSKI: Shrimp are the number one seafood product in the United States.
HAJEK: That’s Dr. Jesse Trushenski with the Center for Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences at Southern Illinois University. She says the U.S. imports most of its shrimp from Southeast Asia, Ecuador and Mexico. Some is also fished from the Gulf.
TRUSHENSKI: People are thinking, Well, if we can raise these marine shrimp that everyone likes to eat closer to the places where lots of people are living, we can save transportation costs and access some of these markets that are currently underserved.
HAJEK: Underserved markets like Central Illinois where the Steiner Farm is located. The challenge is to simulate an ocean environment in a barn in the Midwest. Steiner buys bags of instant sea salt, the same stuff used at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, and he feeds the shrimp all-natural pellets, staying clear of any hormones or antibiotics.
STEINER: We’re checking dissolved oxygen, the alkalinity, pH, all of that to make sure it’s the best situation for the shrimp. There is a cost. It doubled our electricity expenses. But that’s part of it. You expect that.
HAJEK: One drawback is that at $18.00 a pound, these indoor farm-raised shrimp cost about twice what you’re likely to pay for imported shrimp.
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HAJEK: But lots of folks here say the shrimp raised around the corner taste noticeably better than those shipped from around the world.
MANNY MARTINEZ: Bring it back to a boil real quick…
HAJEK: Executive Chef Manny Martinez, at Destihl Restaurant in Normal, Illinois, is cooking up a special dish featuring Steiner’s homegrown shrimp.
MARTINEZ: You can see the shrimp looks beautiful, got good texture to it, great color. It just looks really good. It’s really appetizing. We’ll put a little bit of lime on there and away we go.
EMILY BOLBOCK: Thank you.
MARTINEZ: So what we have here is a little bit of Mexican-style shrimp. We got the local shrimp that we…
HAJEK: Eddie Breitweiser and Emily Bolbock of Bloomington are big seafood fans. And today they’re on a lunchtime date. They’re about to take their first bites of Midwest shrimp.
EDDIE BREITWEISER: It smells really, really good.
BOLBOCK: I still can’t believe how big they are and how fresh they taste.
HAJEK: Within minutes, they’ve devoured their lunch.
BREITWEISER: I’d eat that again in a heartbeat.
HAJEK: Illinois isn’t the only place with indoor saltwater shrimpers. Farmers in Maryland, Virginia and Indiana are doing it too. Trushenski says aquaculture, which now involves raising everything from crustaceans and fish to mollusks, is the nation’s fastest growing type of livestock farming. So don’t be surprised if soon, your freshest shrimp comes not from the ocean, but from a nearby farm.
For NPR News, I’m Daniel Hajek.
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