By Megan Ulu-Lani Boyanton
Jessica Littlefield and Oswald Duarte’s hobby farm in Calhan is a place where sheep roam, horses run, chickens flock — and, soon enough, where shrimp will swim.
“We are giving it a shot,” said Littlefield, co-owner of Rocky Mountain Shrimp Co. “There’s not a right way to grow shrimp, but there are a whole lot of wrong ones.”
If all goes according to plan, the pair will order tens of thousands of Pacific white shrimp in the late summer or early fall for their first harvest.
In the landlocked state of Colorado, the couple are newcomers in the niche industry of indoor shrimp farming. They’re not the only ones in the state to try their hand at the task — but just a couple have succeeded at the expensive, time-consuming job.
The shrimp that ends up on American dinner plates typically arrives frozen from foreign countries, including China, Thailand and Indonesia. They’re raised on outdoor farms in tropical climates. But the traditional process has sparked ethical questions about sustainability, as it can cause pollution, wildlife habitat destruction and more.
The U.S. has attempted to stake a claim in the market, launching the U.S. Marine Shrimp Farming Program in 1984. Today, much of the American shrimping industry occurs along the Gulf Coast, with Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and other Southern states taking the lead.
From Colorado to Indiana to California, states lacking the traditional climates are also raising the shellfish through indoor operations, gradually tapping into the market. Shrimp farmers sell their harvest for around $20 per pound — and even as low as $16.
In 2009, inmates at Arrowhead Correctional Center, a prison in Cañon City, even took up farming Pacific white shrimp. But the project was short-lived, with Colorado Department of Corrections spokesperson Annie Skinner confirming the farm hasn’t been in operation “for a long time.”
Colorado’s shrimp farmers are regulated by several state agencies — and, in some cases, even federal ones. The Colorado Department of Agriculture oversees water quality issues for shrimp farms that operate in fresh water.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment oversees the manufacturing or processing of shrimp if they’re sold wholesale, and the local public health agency will play the same role if they’re sold only to retail, CDPHE spokesperson Gabi Johnston said.
Those who opt to sell wholesale need to register as a wholesale food or licensed retail food establishment. If the farm is taking its business across state lines, then it also needs to register with the Food and Drug Administration.
But farms selling to retail exclusively have “no limit on the amount of shrimp they can sell or who they can sell to,” Johnston said.
When Duarte first proposed the idea of farming shrimp to Littlefield, she initially laughed it off. “I had never really thought about where the shrimp were coming from,” said Littlefield, who grew up in Colorado Springs.
But after looking into his suggestion, “we realized how important it is to start this education on sustainable farming when it comes to seafood,” she said. She called that purpose “the fire that keeps us going.”
The two kicked off the self-funded project last fall after months of research, consulting industry veterans for their advice. Learning through trial and error, they’re currently tinkering with their system for the shrimp, and are preparing to order the final pieces of equipment.
The pair has already touched base with the relevant government agencies, which have given them the green light. Initially, they don’t plan on selling the shrimp for human consumption.
Littlefield described the shared venture as a hobby. “We’re not trying to get rich off of this.”
Instead, their ultimate goal is to educate others, so they can start their own farms. Duarte and Littlefield already hope to expand their operations to include plants, like seaweed, one day
“There’s not too many of us” The couple are joining an industry that has only attracted a smattering of Coloradans.
“There’s not too many of us,” said Jack Beedle, a Colorado shrimp farmer, pointing to the hefty expenses and patience required to succeed.
Since Beedle’s interest was first piqued more than a decade ago, Beedle’s learned a lot about the aquaculture business, even with limited information available — but it’s taken accidentally killing countless whiteleg shrimp to do so.
“If there’s 1,000 mistakes, I’ve made 1,200,” he said. Beedle usually orders 30,000 shrimp at one time, and, “when you make a mistake, you kill your whole batch. And that hurts.”
Shrimp farming in Colorado takes place indoors at a warm temperature, usually in large, saltwater ponds or swimming pools. When the shellfish first reach the farm, each one starts out the size of an eyelash.
It takes around four months for them to grow to market size, but farmers need to pay attention to water quality and other factors to reach that point. “It’s kind of like having an aquarium,” Beedle said.
Lucas Keeton’s company, Keeton Industries, supports indoor shrimp farmers by selling probiotics for aquaculture, equipment and more.
Some of his earliest childhood memories date back to when his parents grew shrimp in Fort Collins in the 1980s, relying on a wood-burning stove to heat the building. “We’d go harvest shrimp when I was 5 years old,” he said on a phone call.
Keeton called it “a 24-hour-a-day deal” to care for the shellfish, as he helped feed them, clean the tanks and change the water.
On harvest days, “you get to go out there with the net, and try to catch the shrimp,” Keeton said. “They’re jumping all over the place.”
His family soon pivoted their business from the farm, which was used for research and development, he added. In 2007, Keeton Industries pursued a pilot project for another shrimp farm in Wellington, but it ultimately faced complications with its water source, Keeton said.
Today, he works with clientele who largely grow white shrimp as the “industry standard,” although Keeton’s heard of experiments with tiger shrimp. The majority sell their wares at farmers markets or directly to consumers, as “most of the small farms don’t have the capacity to take it to market” at large grocers.
But not all shrimp is produced for the dining room. The recreational and sport fishing industry also has a need to fill: bait shrimp for anglers.
Indoor shrimp farms can be found across the country, and “it’s still growing nationally,” he said. But he referred to it as “a cottage industry” that farmers often start as passion projects.