Nebraska farmers create shrimp habitats

Nicholas Bergin
Lincoln Journal Star

DILLER, NE (AP) — A plywood hog, its paint chipped and sun-faded from years of exposure, decorates a metal feed bin outside four red-walled swine barns that sit long and squat along a quiet gravel road in southeastern Nebraska.

In the distance, wind turbines spin over freshly planted cornfields. The breeze blowing those massive white blades smells fresh. There is no overwhelming stench of manure.

The pigs that once filled the barns have been gone for years. Three of the barns are empty. But in the fourth are eight 14-foot pools, the kind you could pick up at a big-box store for kids to splash in over the summer.

All but one of those pools is filled with salty, brownish water, habitat for thousands of Pacific White Shrimp.

"It is its own little micro environment," said Scott Pretzer on a recent afternoon as he pulled back a plastic sheet tented over one of the pools to reveal the hazy liquid within.

The plastic, he explained, keeps heat, humidity and jumping shrimp in the pools. He dips in a net attached to a long pole and comes up with a shrimp about the size of his palm. In six to eight weeks, he says, the first batch will be ready for sale.

It's a novel livestock for a landlocked state but one that has been slowly spreading across the Midwest as low crop prices push farmers to find new ways to supplement their income. Shrimp pools already have popped up in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Nevada.

The Pretzer family is the first to bring them to Nebraska, but another operation is close behind them, the Lincoln Journal Star reported.

Dietrich Brinegar and his dad, Stewart Brinegar, plan to begin growing tasty crustaceans at their farm a mile west of Carleton in June.

To house their shrimp, Dietrich erected a new building of insulated concrete alongside swine confinements his dad built in 1994, the same year his son was born.

"If the shrimp do well, we're going to get out of the hogs. We're getting kind of sick of that," Dietrich said.

People have tried raising crustaceans in Nebraska hog barns before. Retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln Professor Jim Rosowski did it in the early 2000s with Malaysian prawns, a freshwater critter that looks like a big shrimp.

A handful of farmers gave prawns a try but couldn't make enough money for their effort, said Dean Rosenthal, who is in charge of licensing and other aspects of aquatic production for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Shrimp could be different, said Nebraska Department of Agriculture Promotion Coordinator Steve Martin.

Martin tried raising prawn in ponds for two years before giving up. It turns out prawns are rapacious cannibals and highly territorial.

Shrimp are much more neighborly. One 14-foot pool can hold 3,500 shrimp while an adult prawn needs more than a square foot of space all to itself.

And there is demand for shrimp. Americans in 2015 ate 4 pounds of shrimp per person compared with 2.3 pounds of Salmon and 2.3 pounds of tuna, according to the National Fisheries Institute.

The United States imports more than 90 percent of its shrimp, which in 2015 amounted to 587,500 tons, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported.

The Pretzer family has dubbed their new business Rock Creek Aquiculture. The name is a reference to nearby Rock Creek Station, and a historic supply center along the Oregon Trail and Pony Express and the place where Wild Bill Hickock shot David McCanles to death in 1861.

Scott's a veterinarian by trade. He still works at Ehlers Animal Care at 35th Street and Old Cheney Road in Lincoln, but went to part time several years ago so he could take over management of the family farm.

His dad, who lives down the road from the hog barns, technically is retired but still gets out of bed each morning, visits the farm and pitches in.

The family raises corn and soybeans but had been looking at options to bring in more money into the business. Hogs weren't an option.

He wanted his children, Reid, 17, and Skylar, 14, to be the fifth generation of farmers and pigs are not the way to get them interested, he said.

It was Scott's dad, Verne Pretzer, who first spotted an article about raising shrimp in a farming magazine and showed it to his son.

"Shrimp don't run you over, and they don't smell too bad," Verne said.

Verne said he's not scared to try new things. He was one of the first in Jefferson County to test no-till farming back in 1985, but decades of farming taught him caution, too.

He's been there to push the brakes and point out pitfalls to Scott, who's endlessly fascinated by the aquaculture. Scott did his research. The family visited a shrimp farm in Indiana and signed up for consulting services.

"What really impresses me is the quality of the product. It doesn't smell like or taste like the shrimp you buy in the store," Verne said.

Fresh White Pacific Shrimp has a milder and sweeter taste, he said.

It turns out an old hog confinement is the perfect building for shrimp. It took Scott and Verne nine months to remodel and setup the pools. They used 150 tons of sand to fill in the manure pit, added insulation to the ceiling and floor then poured a new cement slab. They ran a system of pipes throughout for heating the tanks and bringing in pressured air to aerate the water.

Inside the building stays warm and humid year round. The water is kept at about 81 degrees and tested daily to ensure just the right levels of things like alkalinity, ammonia, salinity and pH. Lights have to be kept on in the building, too.

"They don't like to be in the dark; it's a stressor for them," Scott Pretzer said.

The shrimps are raised without chemicals, hormones or antibiotics.

"If we need to adjust the pH, we have baking soda," he said.

Each tank is a contained ecosystem. Once the water is in the system and conditioned, it stays there. It doesn't get changed and there is no discharge. Beneficial bacteria feed on ammonia produced by the shrimp and keep the water in balance.

Some nitrogen-rich sediment will settle at the bottom of the tanks, which works great as fertilizer for the garden.

But it takes time to get the water conditioned just right, and the first year the percent of shrimp in each tank that live to be sold can vary, which means profits vary, too.

Come harvest time, shrimp get scooped out of their pools and plopped into ice water. Scott says that's the most humane way to kill them. They're then packed with ice to keep them fresh. He recommends grilled shrimp with a little salt and pepper.

"I don't get real fancy with seasoning. When you have something good to cook, I don't like anything overpowering in terms of seasoning or sauce," he said.

Scott said he plans to build a sales room to sell shrimp from the farm and is considering farmers' markets. Once he gets established and harvests become more predictable, he plans to begin looking at wholesaling to restaurants or stores.

He plans to eventually double the number of pools to 16 and might raise crayfish.
For retail sales, he's planning to charge $18 a pound for shrimp. It's more expensive than frozen shrimp in the grocery store, but the price reflects the quality.

Plus, he said, it comes with the assurance the shrimp are fresh, local and responsibly raised.

Information from: Lincoln Journal Star,