No small feat
Shrimp farm opens for business
CHARLO – Five months ago, the idea of local shrimp in the Mission Valley was laughable, but now, the first locally grown shrimp are on the market.
In his backyard, Jim Vaughn has a barn filled with six Walmart swimming pools, five of them teeming with 22,000 living shrimp at various stages of development.
Vaughn learned about shrimp farming from his brother, who lives in Idaho, and started a shrimp farm. He liked that the operation was very ecologically sustainable and that it created a novelty food item. Fresh seafood in the region is otherwise impossible.
While the idea of a shrimp farm is novel in Montana, Vaughn said they’re common in the Midwest. When the pig industry declined farmers turned to raising shrimp. Universities have done some research on farming shrimp in tanks, and Vaughn has read up on the literature.
Vaughn started out with an experimental tank where he streamlined his systems to ensure that he could make the shrimp grow. He tested the market by selling those experimental fish at farmers markets.
When his brother decided to go back to mining, he offered Vaughn the shrimp he had raised. Suddenly, Vaughn had to get ready for thousands of shrimp. Starting last summer, he built a 78- by-46-foot barn, got the swimming pools, and got the shrimp. In Montana, the shrimp started their new lives.
The shrimp don’t qualify as organic because there’s a wax binder in their food that isn’t organic, but Vaughn calls the operation 100 percent natural. He said the operation requires very low inputs in terms of resources. He introduces bacteria to the pools that keep them clean by eating the shrimps’ waste. Then the shrimp eat those bacteria, so no waste is created. The systems that support the operation are sustainable, too.
The water is heated with propane, and the heat from the tanks warms the building and the office. The building is fitted with energy-efficient LED lights. An air blower introduces a current to the water and keeps solids from settling in the tanks.
“All the power I use is for the ice machine and the refrigerator. I want to make it as environmentally friendly as a guy can,” he said. He’s looking into getting his energy from solar panels.
Vaughn is still working out some logistics. He’ll need to get more baby shrimp to keep up his supply. The sensitive young shrimp will have to be shipped from Texas or Florida until he gets a nursery up and running.
On his first weekend selling the shrimp out of his barn, he sold 11 pounds. Customers get extremely fresh shrimp. He nets the shrimp out of the swimming pool when a customer arrives and puts them in freshwater to “put them to sleep,” so they are sold as live shrimp.
“They’re the freshest shrimp you can get. They’re sweet, and you don’t have to remove the sand line,” he said.
Vaughn grew up in Charlo and worked on microfilm equipment in his younger life. When computers pushed microfilm out of the market, he worked on wells and submersible pumps. Vaughn grew up on a farm, raising cows and sheep. He uses many of the skills he developed in those businesses as a shrimp farmer. He knows how to build and fix equipment and understands the basics of raising livestock. He’s also enjoyed the creative aspect of the business. He invented covers on the tanks to control the humidity in the barn. He developed a way to transport the shrimp to the farmers market. He also has a self-feeding system for the shrimp, which means he has more freedom than those who farm more traditional stock.
Vaughn said the next step is marketing. For now, he’s using social media to get the word out. People have been excited about the business. He hopes people will turn to his product for the holidays. “The interest is there; I just need to convert it to sales,” he said.