This story was first featured in the 2017 September-October issue of Soybean Business. Click here to view the digital version of the magazine.
MANKATO, Minn. — Andy Tauer wasn’t always a true believer in aquaculture’s long-term prospects. But those days have passed. Tauer has seen the light; domestic aquaculture, he says, is preparing to serve a growing demand.
“To be honest, when I was on the terrestrial livestock side, I was quite skeptical of aquaculture,” says Tauer, the new executive director of the Indiana-based Soy Aquaculture Alliance. “But the more you study the technology and the research that is being done, you start to see the vast opportunities start to open up, particularly for soybean farmers.”
About 85 percent of seafood consumed in the United States is imported, mostly from Southeast Asia and Latin America; the rest mostly comes from the open sea in the Gulf of Mexico. Now a booming industry is dedicated toward raising more domestic seafood, from shrimp to trout or salmon.
“Fish has surpassed beef in global consumption,” Tauer says. “Fish as a meat protein source has gained a lot of traction with consumers and producers, and we’re doing all we can do to build the domestic industry. It’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved.”
Fledging aquaculture companies like Ralco Nutrition affiliate Tru Shrimp in Lyon County, Minn., can raise domestic shrimp indoors in as little as 12 inches of water via their Tidal Basin system. Since its birth nearly three years ago, Tru Shrimp uses feed that is 45 percent related to soybeans, which are a source of both protein and omega-3 fatty acids. The Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council (MSR&PC) took early notice of the industry’s potential.
“What (shrimp farming) means for Minnesota Soybean is we need about 18 million pounds of feed each year to feed one of our harbors,” says Tru Shrimp CEO Michael Ziebell. “We’ve been working with the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council to develop a research path to better utilize the qualities of the soybeans. We hope that’s an ongoing effort as we explore how we provide better and safer nutrition for the shrimp.”
MSR&PC Director Rob Obermoller toured the tru Shrimp facilities last year, and came away impressed with aquaculture’s growth potential. He believes aquaculture could prove financially akin to biodiesel and ethanol for Minnesota farmers.
“This can really be a big deal,” Obermoller says. “They have pretty much the premiere shrimp facility in the world, so I have a lot of optimism in the possibilities of aquaculture.”
Shrimp are one of the most popular seafoods in the United States. As of 2014, shrimp aquaculture in the United States totaled less than 11 million pounds annually, but Americans consume about 1.6 billion pounds of shrimp each year – that’s about five pounds of shrimp for every man, woman and child.
Tru Shrimp hopes to have three shrimp harbors in Minnesota within five years, producing an estimated 25 million pounds of shrimp. They are currently building a training center just outside Marshall in Balaton, Minn.
“Basically, when we build those harbors, we will be bigger than the entire industry in the United States,” Ziebell says. “We’ve got a ways to go, but we’ve already come a long way.”
The company hopes to commence construction on a $48 million production facility in Luverne, Minn., by summer 2018, with another planned harbor in Lamberton, Minn. According to a University of Minnesota study, the ongoing annual economic impact of each of Tru Shrimp’s planned harbors could reach $30 million.
“We tried to build a shrimp farm, but we realized we’re actually growing an industry,” said Dr. Jon Holt, Tru Shrimp’s senior technical director. “We want to use our technology to enhance the sustainability.”
Tru shrimp was buoyed by the August announcement that Schwan’s Co. had agreed to a minority stake in the company. Tru shrimp will operate one of Schwan’s Marshall processing plants; after the shrimp reach full maturity in Luverne, they’ll return to the Schwan’s plant for final processing and packing.
“Now that Schwan’s signed on, I’m really excited about this,” says Minnesota Soybean Growers Association Director George Goblish. “With their marketing, the reach is unlimited. Not only is aquaculture moving forward, it’s now on the fast track.”
Running through red tape
Ziebell says he often encounters some raised eyebrows when discussing raising shrimp in landlocked Minnesota. The reason, he answers, is simple. If you grow it, they will come.
“We’re in Minnesota because this is where the feed is,” he says. “The upper Midwest is the breadbasket of soybean commodities and other commodities. The commodities here serve us well. Essentially, we’ve brought the shrimp to the feed.”
Politicians and administrators have taken notice of aquaculture’s potential influence. During his confirmation hearing, United States Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross expressed support for domestic commercial fishing.
“Given the enormity of our freshwater,” Ross says, “I would to try to figure out how we can become much more self-sufficient in fishing and perhaps even a net exporter of fishing.”
During the 2017 Minnesota Legislative session, the House Ag Committee passed a bill creating $5 million in tax incentives for Minnesota companies producing more than 25,000 pounds of shrimp annually. For the first time, there’s also an aquaculture caucus in the United States Congress.
“It really seems to me like state government is excited as we are about this, and they’re willing to help,” Obermoller says.
But Tauer says other regulatory red tape still stands in the way of aquaculture reaching its fullest potential.
“The regulatory challenges to develop a new system is pretty large,” Tauer says, citing the Environmental Corp of Engineers, Army Corps of Engineers and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It’s been a huge limiting factor, but hopefully the new administration sees that this is a chance to create more jobs at home.”
Tru Shrimp produces its own saltwater, and is addressing environmental concerns by recycling the 14 million gallons of water required to fill one of their Tidal Basin harbors. The harbors, which required between 60,000 and 100,000 gallons of water for daily maintenance, have their own water and waste treatment facilities.
“We are certainly being environmentally responsible,” Ziebell says. “And we have validated without a shadow of a doubt that we can grow shrimp in 12 inches of water.”
The sky is the limit for aquaculture, and Minnesota soybeans are helping to shatter the glass ceiling.
“We appreciate the support of the soybean industry and look forward to a long and fruitful partnership,” Ziebell says. “Aquaculture is poised to give a new market to soybeans, and utilize and support our local industries and commodities.”
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