Seafood Could be New Missouri Cash Crop

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COLUMBIA - The United States imports about 85 percent of the shrimp we eat from places like China, Indonesia and Taiwan, according to David Brune, and "it is completely unsustainable."

Brune is a professor of agriculture systems management at the University of Missouri's College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. He came to MU to work on shrimp discharge production, a clean, environmentally friendly and sustainable form of shrimp production.

If American consumers are willing to pay about four or five dollars a pound for head-on shrimp opposed to three dollars a pound for imported head-on shrimp, then the system could create a new cash crop for Missouri farmers, according to Brune.

Brune said the main issue is competition with seafood imports from places like China, Taiwan and Indonesia because people are willing to pay less for seafood that is not fresh and grown locally.

He said most international seafood producers use wild-caught fish meal from marine protein caught in the ocean and are discharging waste from their ponds and polluting Asian coastal waters.

Continuing the seafood business will require farming aquatic organisms, or aquaculture, according to Brune because "we're overfishing the world's oceans in almost every species."

Brune said he uses brine shrimp to harvest algae and to provide a fish meal replacement to feed the Pacific white shrimp instead of using feed from the ocean itself.

The algae controls water quality by providing oxygen and removing carbon dioxide and ammonia, according to Brune.

Paddle wheels keep the water moving for greater photosynthesis of the algae. That productivity makes it possible to maintain water quality while stocking shrimp at a very high density, according to Brune.

Brune is working on an order of about 30,000 pounds of shrimp production per acre of water every four months.

Brune expects to produce about 90,000 pounds of shrimp per acre of water a year.

His greenhouse has about one-twentieth of an acre of water, thus producing about 4,500 pounds of shrimp per year and said he would like to build a prototype system on a one-half or one acre scale to prove the scalability.

He expected about a four month cycle for the shrimp in his greenhouse to grow to market size, but he stocked his system about three months ago with baby shrimp and said the shrimp are already a good size for harvest.

He recently weighed shrimp and each weighed about 19 grams. The 24 count size is what shoppers typically find in the grocery store, according to Brune.

Brune said although he nearly perfected a system where farmers can produce shrimp in a way that will last, is environmentally friendly and compatible with zero discharge, "it doesn't mean anything to anyone unless we do it cost effectively."

Shrimp is a valuable product that can be produced in a short period, according to Brune.

"I can grow a crop of shrimp here every 120 days," he said. "If I raise the equivalent of 25,000 pounds per acre of water and I can get four dollars a pound, that is a $100,000 cash flow per acre of water every 120 days."

Brune said it costs him about three dollars a pound to produce the shrimp, so for farmers to make a profit and for the shrimp to actually become a Missouri cash crop, shoppers would have to pay one or two dollars more.

He said after he makes the system a technical success, he must find a way to make it affordable for farmers to begin and make a living at it.

"It's just a matter of people coming forward with the money, building a system and doing it," said Brune.

Northwest Missouri farmer, Doug Ottinger drove about three hours to visit Brune's greenhouse a second time because he is looking for a way to make money off a small scale farm.

He lives on 110 acres with two other families and said, "three families can't live off 100 acres using conventional farming methods...You have to turn to unconventional methods."

Ottinger said if the other two families living on the land and his family began using the zero discharge shrimp production system, there's at least potential to make a living farming.

Ottinger said based on costs, he would start with a smaller scale green house and expand if he is successful.

In order for that to happen, there must be a culture change, according to Ottinger.

"Most people are used to going to the store and paying four or five dollars for a pound of shrimp and don't even look at where it came from," said Ottinger. "If people are willing to pay a little more for something from the U.S., I think it will catch on pretty quick."

In a couple weeks, Brune said he will pull nets through the system for his first shrimp harvest in Missouri with hopes of catching shrimp that could support the future of the seafood business.

Brune said he will hopefully be selling shrimp along side the green house in about the last week of September.