WEYERHAEUSER — Driving by Larry and Laurie Fortuna’s 230-cow dairy farm west of Weyerhaeuser, passersby often need to slow down and do a double take.
After all, despite a sign proclaiming this as the home of “North Country Shrimp,” the Fortunas’ 500-acre Rusk County farm set in cow and corn country might be one of the last places one would expect to find fresh shrimp.
But since they started raising saltwater Pacific white shrimp last year, people have warmed to the concept, according to the Fortunas, who sell all their shrimp right off the farm directly to customers.
“It’s a learning curve for people,” Laurie said.
It’s a welcome one for most, especially those trying to eat local, Larry said. “The biggest thing is they see us catch them fresh. How much fresher can you get?”
Discouraged by low milk prices and drought and not sure that another herd expansion was the answer, the Fortunas became interested in adding indoor shrimp production a few years ago. They had already expanded their dairy herd from 60 to 230 cows in 2001 and didn’t relish adding more cows.
After touring a few other Midwest shrimp operations, they talked to their banker about financing that would include a new facility — their biggest expense.
“Most others have an existing building; we had to build new,” Larry said. “That was the sticker shock. ... We hadn’t built anything since 2001 when we put the free-stall (barn) up.”
The next purchase was about 20 swimming pools they found online. Shrimp are bought in quantities of 30,000 from a hatchery in the Florida Keys. About the size of an eyelash when they arrive, they’re shipped overnight to the Fortunas.
Hiring Chad Axley from Northern Tide Farm in Elgin, Minn., as a consultant was well worth the money, the Fortunas said, and they could someday consult someone else to earn back that investment.
Six months into production late last summer, they had their first shrimp to sell.
“Every time since, they have grown faster,” so now, they have a new batch ready for harvest within a few months, Larry said.
About a year after raising their first batch, the Fortunas say they’re still fine-tuning the production cycle so when one batch is sold out, the next one is ready to go. They also continue to learn about the optimal conditions for shrimp and have learned some lessons the hard way.
“It’s all about the water quality,” Larry said.
Those first few months, they tested the water daily for salinity, oxygen, pH and other factors. Water testing now is done once a week, as the water is fairly seasoned and features a healthy biofloc system of algae, protozoa and bacteria in which shrimp thrive. Biofloc breaks down the shrimp waste, and the shrimp feed on the biofloc. A water temperature of 82 degrees Fahrenheit is maintained.
The Fortunas maintain two nursery tanks, each containing 15,000 young, post-larval shrimp. New shrimp are acclimated to their new home over two hours by slowly introducing them to the tank water. As they grow, the shrimp are moved to grow-out tanks, which hold up to 2,000 shrimp.
Shrimp are bottom feeders and tend to cluster toward the bottom of tanks. Each tank is equipped with large air stones that aerate tanks and help release ammonia. These air stones hang on tubes that are always moving to prevent solids from settling. Tanks also are stirred manually once a day.
Because heavy metals are toxic to shrimp, a filtration system is used to bring iron levels in the water down to almost nothing.
The Fortunas have designed a crowd-gate system that aids in removing shrimp from tanks so they don’t have to pump out the water.
In an effort to control input costs, they have installed energy-efficient lighting and geothermal floor heat in the facility.
“We’re trying to make a perfect environment for them to grow fastest and most efficiently,” Larry said.
Laurie said it’s been relatively easy to fit shrimp chores, which aren’t very physically demanding, into their day as dairy farmers. However, it’s time-consuming work and, like dairying, a seven-day-a-week commitment, but they want to keep the enterprise small enough that they don’t have to hire employees.
Shrimp are fed three times a day. The Fortunas’ 40,000 shrimp eat about 8 pounds of feed per day; compare that to the 10 to 12 tons required daily by their dairy herd. As the shrimp grow, the protein level in their feed is reduced and the feed gets coarser.
The Fortunas have shrimp feed shipped in by the pallet in 50-pound bags from Cargill; about a third of that cost is in shipping alone, they said. Another major expense is saltwater testing supplies.
Eventually, they hope to add a sales counter and office.
“This is all a work in progress,” Laurie said.
The Fortunas have seen a steady stream of customers coming right to their door, where they sell live shrimp for about $20 per pound.
“Most first-timers like to see them caught,” Larry said.
They don’t have set business hours, so customers are asked to call ahead and bring a cooler and ice. The Fortunas offer free tours of their facility and explain how best to process and prepare fresh shrimp, which can be difficult to peel.
“We do them like a lobster — boil the water, throw them in there 4 minutes, run them under cold water, then shell them,” Larry said.
While they have considered selling shrimp at farmers’ markets, the Fortunas say more customers are finding them on the farm. Another concern with farmers’ markets is throwing extra shrimp away if they don’t sell out.
“We’d almost have to have pre-orders,” Larry said. “Our supply has been selling out on appointments.”
There’s been interest, but the Fortunas don’t expect to ever have enough volume to be able to supply grocery stores and restaurants.
Also, there are too many regulatory hoops to jump through, Larry said. Even though they don’t process shrimp on site, they would still need to have a processing facility and license in order to sell shrimp to a restaurant.
“We haven’t pursued it; we’ve been selling out,” he said. “We would rather have 100 customers than four.”
Fourth-generation dairy farmers, the Fortunas say that eventually, after they have maxed out shrimp production and expanded their client base, the cows may leave their farm.
But because the income from shrimp production is somewhat irregular, Larry said, they’re not quite ready to quit their “day job” milking cows.
“For most people, it will have to supplement something else,” he said.
North Country Shrimp is located just off U.S. Highway 8 at N3729 Cranberry Lake Road. For more information, call 715-353-2842, visit http://www.northcountryshrimp.com or find them on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/northcountryshrimp." target="_blank">http://www.facebook.com/northcountryshrimp.
If you go
What: Weyerhaeuser Ag-Tech Tour.
When: Saturday, Sept. 2, 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.
Where: North Country Shrimp, Rocky Acres Angus and Frederick Weyerhaeuser Specialized Technology, all in Weyerhaeuser area.