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Shown are shrimp grown at the Tru Shrimp laboratory at Balaton. Special to the Forum News Service

Major shrimp growing, processing operation to begin in Minnesota

BALATON, Minn. — Luverne is among two southwest Minnesota communities tapped to possibly become home to the state's first commercial-scale shrimp production facility, or shrimp harbor.

Michael Ziebell, president and chief executive officer of The trū Shrimp Company, a subsidiary of Ralco Nutrition in Balaton, said an announcement will be made in the near future.

Marshall, already selected for the shrimp processing facility, is also in consideration for the first shrimp harbor.

"The city of Luverne and its economic development group have provided us with a very fine offer to bring a harbor — a shrimp production facility — to Luverne," Ziebell said. "They have the water, (willingness to) build the infrastructure; they have the land on which we could build the harbor.

"Marshall has done a similar thing as well," he added. "Luverne and Marshall are at the top of the list today — if one goes first, the other one will go second."

A shrimp hatchery is also planned, and while the location of that has yet to be decided, Ziebell said it will likely be built in Lyon County — either in Marshall or near the company's home base at Balaton.

"We hope to break ground on the hatchery this spring," he said. "We have to have the hatchery first, and in the spring of 2018 we hope to start construction on the first one or two harbors. The processing center will follow so that once the shrimp are coming out of the harbor, we're all ready to go."

Trū Shrimp's plans for a shrimp harbor includes construction of a $48 million facility comprised of 9 acres under one roof. The harbor will house approximately 75 million shrimp, which will be raised from the post-larvae stage (.003 grams each) — roughly the size of a healthy mosquito, Ziebell said — up to marketable sizes. There are nine different market sizes, ranging from tiny to extra jumbo. It takes a shrimp up to four months to reach extra jumbo size.

"We will produce over 150 million shrimp annually out of that harbor," Ziebell said. "It takes us a year to ramp it up, but once it's fully operational, that would be its production."

Economic impact

Whether Luverne or Marshall is chosen to be the home of the first shrimp harbor, the economic impact to the southwest corner of the state is significant.

A recently completed University of Minnesota study on the economic impact of just one shrimp harbor included 330 direct, indirect and induced jobs during construction. Once completed, the harbor would employ an estimated 74 full-time equivalent workers. Overall, the company's annual operating costs are projected to be $30 million.

A significant impact is also anticipated in the region's agricultural sector.

"This is where the feed is — we're bringing the shrimp to the feed," Ziebell said. "Forty-five percent of the shrimp's diet today is soybean meal or soybean concentrate.

"We are among the first ever here, in our pilot production and laboratory, to feed shrimp a significant amount of corn — we're up to 300 pounds per ton of feed," he added. "That's never been done before, to our knowledge."

Trū Shrimp's pilot production facility and laboratory at Balaton is also experimenting with distiller's dried grains, and has a "long list of ingredients and compounds and natural feedstuffs that we want to feed to the shrimp and find the perfect diet for them," Ziebell said. "Our growth rates that we are experiencing today are unprecedented in the shrimp industry."

The U of M study projects just one trū Shrimp harbor could affect the price of soybeans by 15 cents per bushel.

'Nothing like this'

The trū Shrimp Company was born from an idea by Ralco Nutrition founders John and Brian Knochenmus to explore aquaculture opportunities through their animal nutrition and animal health technology.

"They were visiting in Ecuador, which is a large producer of shrimp aquaculture, and in the process, they encountered Professor Addison Lawrence from Texas A&M University," said Ziebell. Lawrence, now retired, was considered one of the foremost shrimp nutritionists in the world, he said.

"Dr. Lawrence introduced them to this super intense shallow water raceway technology that Texas A&M was developing at its Port Aransas Research facility," Ziebell said. "John and Brian were fascinated with that technology and everything it represented."

In December 2014, Ralco Nutrition was chosen from 40 different companies to be able to acquire the patent rights and commercialize the patent for shallow water shrimp production. A month later, the Ralco Technology Center at Balaton went to work, taking the dimensions of the shallow water raceway to a commercial size and validating its success.

"The first thing we did was build a laboratory and pilot production lines into the technology campus here in Balaton," Ziebell said. "We have one of the foremost shrimp laboratories in the world here in Balaton. We've been validating the technology, validating that indeed we can grow shrimp in shallow water, and we're seeing how fast we can get the shrimp to grow.

"We're really working on nutrition and other aspects of shrimp husbandry to improve upon what we've already done," he added.

Now, Ziebell said, the company is more than ready to begin construction on a commercial shrimp harbor.

"There's nothing like this anywhere in the world," he said. "It requires the technology that we've developed, which is protected by patents."

Large market

Americans consume 1.6 billion pounds of shrimp each year. That's five pounds of shrimp for every man, woman and child living in the United States. Ziebell said approximately 80 percent of the shrimp consumed here comes from shrimp aquaculture ponds in southeast Asia and Ecuador.

"These ponds, for decades, have been riddled by disease," he said. "Our system mitigates the risk of disease."

Using all natural feedstuffs and no antibiotics, Ziebell said trū Shrimp's shrimp will be completely traceable through the supply chain.

"We believe we're going to have a significant competitive advantage in the shrimp marketplace with the quality of our shrimp and also the nature in which they are raised and harvested," Ziebell said. "People love shrimp. We do not have to teach the American people how to eat shrimp."

Seafood is one of the United States' largest trade deficits, Ziebell said, with 45 percent of the seafood trade deficit being imported shrimp.

"So, in our own small way, we're going to start to affect the U.S. trade deficit — one shrimp at a time," he added.

Legislation introduced

District 22 Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, recently authored legislation to incentivize shrimp production in Minnesota. Senate File 841 creates a $5 million incentive program for Minnesota companies that produce more than 25,000 pounds of shrimp each quarter.

"I am hopeful this legislation will allow shrimp producers already operating in Minnesota to expand, while luring new development and encouraging shrimp production in our state," Weber said in a press release. "The economic impact that shrimp production could have on our region is limitless. I believe we are positioning ourselves to be at the forefront of an industry that has the potential for explosive growth, not only in Senate District 22, but in all of Minnesota. I commend trū Shrimp and its parent company, Ralco, for their commitment to their home area and state."

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at farmbleat.areavoices.com.

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