Prawn Stars: The New Indiana Shrimp Frontier

Two ”prawn stars” from Fowler are farming the crustacean, and inspiring others to do the same.
The busted pump on the shrimp tank, the latest malfunction in a series of issues, was the last straw. The part had broken during the night, and now Karlanea and Darryl Brown had 225 pounds of dead crustaceans—shrimp that were supposed to be served at DigIN, a tasting event featuring Hoosier food.

That morning in August 2011 should have been an exciting moment for RDM Shrimp. The Browns had spent the past year learning to raise shrimp near Fowler, becoming just the third such farm in the U.S. Sending a big order to one of the most popular foodie affairs in Indianapolis was to be a milestone.

Instead of celebrating, the Browns found themselves scrambling, separating out 4,500 good shrimp from the spoiled crop. This latest round of dead shrimp brought their total number lost that year to a depressing 900,000. Their consultant, a marine biologist who had sold them the tank system, was little help. The couple dropped him and, through a course of trial and error, became one of the most successful shrimp farms in the country.

Darryl, a former owner of a construction company whose father inspired him to take on seafood, tackled building a new system to contain the shrimp. First, he spread their shed with 12-foot and 18-foot aboveground swimming pools. In the larger pools, he added a pond pump in the middle to circulate the water, going through four prototypes. Because he had designed the system, when something broke he knew how to fix it.

Some pools served as “nursery tanks,” where shrimp ordered fresh from a Florida hatchery were placed. Shrimp would reach full size in the “grow out” tanks. But then the Browns added an intermediate tank, where the shrimp would live for 25 days after weighing in at a gram, hoping the move would boost survival. They also tinkered with a type of bacteria used in manmade ponds to replicate seawater. They even began treating baby shrimp like newborns, feeding them soybean-based food five times per day at precise times.

One morning, Karlanea realized 90 percent of the shrimp had survived from hatchery to harvest in one tank—previously, half of that total would have been a success. Soon the Browns were seeing that level of survival regularly. While they weren’t producing a large supply, they were able to keep the shrimp alive until they turned a profit. Using just road signs, word of mouth, and their Facebook page, they were selling all of their shrimp right out the front door of the shed.

The couple began getting dozens of calls to consult. They spoke at aquaculture conferences and gave tours for $200. They sold replicas of their equipment and their own starter shrimp and charged $10,000 for unlimited advice in the first year.

The Browns have now helped start nearly a dozen shrimp farms in Indiana, several others throughout the country, and more in Switzerland, India, Germany, and Egypt. They make a steady income by supplying shrimp each month to sustain 14 shrimp farms, conducting $75,000 in direct sales, and grossing more than $400,000 from start-ups.

Even with RDM’s successes, the industry is still too new for them to feel confident scaling up to supply restaurants. Some hope that will change. A group of local producers, along with Purdue University, the Aquaculture Association, and the Indiana Soybean Alliance—which has a vested interest, since soybean meal can be used as protein in fish food—is trying to ensure the seafood industry’s long-term success in the state.

Occasionally, Indiana shrimp pop up on Indy menus. Neil Andrews, executive chef at The Oceanaire Seafood Room, has added it as a special in the past. He says he loves the taste—since the shrimp have never been frozen, the sweetness is more pronounced. But locally raised shrimp aren’t perfectly uniform in size, something customers desire. And serving only Indiana varieties would cut profits. RDM Shrimp, for instance, charges $15 per pound for 40-count shrimp—more costly than grocery stores or wholesalers. The Oceanaire’s parent, Landry’s Restaurants, employs people whose sole responsibility is to find the best market price for shrimp.

The Browns will expand RDM soon, with plans to add a hatchery and more tanks, and to experiment with oysters. But the crustacean will remain their calling card: Last year, at the International Conference on Recirculating Aquaculture, a man approached. “We’ve been following your story for the past three years,” he said, shaking hands. “We said, ‘We’ve gotta meet the Shrimp King and Queen!’”