Shrimp: It could be what’s for dinner

The following article appeared in the Lakefield Standard, January 4, 2016

By: Jessica Oye

Officials with Ralco’s tru Shrimp Systems have plans to make a big splash in the food market.

The patented system is up and running at Ralco’s Technology campus in Balaton and company officials have their eyes set on a bigger and brighter future for shrimp.

“We’re going to get closer to the dinner plate than we ever have before,” said Ryan Wendland, marketing director.

After acquiring the license in December 2014 to utilize Addison Lawrence’s patented Tidal Basin technology, Ralco built the first up-scaled research facility that is poised to confirm Lawrence’s research on a larger scale with plans to translate it to a commercial facility.

Lawrence’s research has been based at Texas A & M in Port Aransas, Texas, where he spent years researching and developing the technology to grow shrimp in a land-based system. Ralco joins him in the mission to take shrimp from a luxury item to a more accessible source of protein that could help feed the world. Lawrence has since joined Ralco’s aquaculture team and remains a vital part of the process.

After months of construction, the up-scaled research facility is moving ahead at a steady pace. Wendland said Ralco was a great fit for Lawrence’s Tidal Basin technology because the company was ready to step up to make the investment into a proper facility and put the work into doing the project right.

Research center operations
Robert Gervais, operations manager for tru Shrimp Systems, oversees day-to-day operations of the research center. He is one of 15 employees involved in the shrimp project.

The research happens in three zones. The first zone is where animal health and water quality are monitored. Research students and Ralco employees monitor the shrimp and their environment closely, Gervais said.

The second zone is the feed lab. Ralco currently purchases some commercial feed for the shrimp, but is working to develop the best feed for the shrimp in order to optimize shrimp growth and health and produce a high-quality end product.

Gervais and others involved in the project field many questions about why the Midwest is the right spot to conduct the current research.

“Why would you raise shrimp in Minnesota? Well, the feed is here,” he said.

Soybean meal is a key ingredient to shrimp feed, a main source of protein for the shrimp. Being surrounded by soybean growers across Minnesota, it makes sense shrimp production could and should flourish here, Gervais said.

The third and final zone of the research center is where the shrimp are located.

“Shrimp have a whole production phase just like any other animal,” Gervais said.

Resembling small grains of rice, Pacific White shrimp enter the facility as PL-12 Post-Larvae that are around 12 days old. They are delivered to the research center from a Texas supplier. Upon their arrival, the shrimp are placed in the 16 nursery tanks, where they are fed, ensured enough space for proper growth and monitored daily. From there, they are transitioned to the Tidal Basin system, where they spend the rest of their time growing in a brown water system called ‘biofloc.’ Biofloc contains nutrients for the shrimp and reduces water usage.

Gervais –– the time required from entrance into the facility to catch time or the harvesting of the shrimp — is three-and-a-half to four months. The end product is about an 8-gram shrimp that would classify as a small shrimp — 60 to 70 count — at a grocery store.

In addition to wanting to have the world’s best shrimp lab, officials with tru Shrimp Systems also hope to one day add a broodstock to their operations.

“We want to be conception to consumption,” Gervais said.

A broodstock would eliminate the need to work with suppliers of the PL-12s, since the facility would produce its own.

With research still continuing, the third zone also has 144 research tanks tru Shrimp Systems is using to fine tune important processes like feed conversion ratios, optimal temperature, water salinity and tank capacity.

The future of shrimp
It has been Lawrence’s goal to use technology to grow shrimp in land systems that will make shrimp more accessible, affordable and help feed the world. Gervais said Ralco is looking to make that happen in the near future.

Plans for the first harbor shrimp farm are in motion, and Gervais expects it to be located within 15-to-20 miles of Balaton. Staying within close proximity to the current research facility should improve the translation of the proven techniques and technology to a commercial scale.

“We should have a spade in the ground by 2017,” he said.

The harbor would not be just any building, Gervais said. To accommodate the necessary tank length and width, the building will be close to a quarter-mile long at 1,300 feet and 300 feet wide with the capacity to produce 9 million pounds of shrimp per year.

Gervais said tru Shrimp Systems is not ruling out using an existing building, but admitted the type of building required may be hard to find. Any existing building, Gervais said, would be a midsize step up from the current research facility and the company has its sights set on making a bigger jump than that at this time.

He predicts after the first harbor goes up, the second and third will be quick to follow. Gervais said all harbors won’t necessarily be located in the Midwest and believes there may be other parts of the country interested having a harbor nearby, especially places where fresh shrimp consumption is high.

In addition to using technology to go commercial, Gervais said tru Shrimp Systems is also harnessing the power of technology to run its planned harbor as “green” as possible. With estimates of water usage in the millions of gallons, company officials are working on methods to recapture and recirculate as much of that water as possible.

“We want to be a good neighbor wherever our harbor is built,” he said.

Gervais added the company also hopes to maximize the usage of each shrimp, meaning the whole shrimp. A harbor would require a central processing plant nearby. After the catch process, the harvested shrimp will need to be processed — heads removed, peeled and deveined and cleaned — prior to packaging and shipping. Gervais said what is left of the shrimp can be made into shrimp meal and research is ongoing as to the use of nitrates for fertilizer. Company officials have also fielded inquiries from developers who are interested in using the shrimp’s molts to create a biodegradable plastic bottle.

Local effect
Gervais said tru Shrimp Systems’ future and planned growth will surely have an effect on the local economy. Current estimates project a harbor would create about 50 jobs, and a central processing plant would create another 100 jobs once it was up and running at full capacity.

Gervais is hopeful the local labor supply will be able to fill the jobs when they are created and acknowledges construction of such buildings alone will provide job opportunities for area construction companies.

Company officials also hope local soybean growers will see a positive effect as well, since soybean meal makes up about one-third of the shrimp’s feed.

“It will not be a ripple effect,” Gervais said. “It’s like dropping a rock in a 5-gallon bucket full of water. This will be a splash effect.”

With the potential to produce millions of pounds of shrimp per year, Gervais said the team at tru Shrimp Systems is working to help people view shrimp as a commodity food item, not one of luxury. Making shrimp more accessible — in this case locally grown — will be a step in the right direction, he said.

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