Travelling west on State Road 18 outside Lafayette, two flags break up the monotony of vast tracts of row crops. They also mark the entrance to an unexpected Hoosier portal to the sea.
While Indiana certainly isn’t a seafood mecca, if you happen across Darryl and Karlanea Brown's farm you can find fresh homegrown shrimp year-round.
"Freshest seafood for 600 miles" is how they market the unique, briny product they've been raising and selling from their BentonCounty farm since 2010.
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The red buildings, flanked by plastic-wrapped greenhouses, could be mistaken as just another traditional farm, but a closer looks reveals a crustacean oasis the entrepreneurial couple has fashioned in their landlocked landscape.
Karlanea greets customers from behind the counter in the retail shop, where they also sell other products from their farm. Aquariums holding turtles, frogs and a large shrimp are scattered among shelves of T-shirts, houseplants and other various goods.
Customers going on a tour will first walk through a makeshift office space with papers stacked on tables and shelves full of working and abandoned experiments for the ever-evolving farm.
This is where the humidity creeps in.
Just beyond another door, the gurgle and hum of shrimp tanks mix with the salty, fishy smells of the ocean. To the left of the entrance, large tanks with murky brown water hold the Browns' "crop" of growing shrimp.
The water in the tanks — converted swimming pools — lazily flows clockwise. Suspended feed and bacteria make it difficult to see any shrimp until one of the Browns dips a net in and scoops out a few.
On the other side of the entrance, more tanks wait for shrimp to outgrow the pools of young. Here there are also a few tilapia and the skeleton plans for future growth: empty tanks waiting to house the growing inventory of the Browns' investments.
The Browns run RDM Aquaculture and customers drive hundreds of miles to get their fill of Pacific White or Whiteleg shrimp raised right here in Indiana.
They sell the fresh shrimp in two sizes: $18 a pound for 30 count (30 to a pound), and $22 per pound for the larger 20 count size.
“One lady lives an hour and a half away in Illinois,” Karlanea said. “She came in on her birthday, just drove over here for her shrimp. We get this all the time. People drive up and buy a couple pounds.”
Another woman drives six hours from Cleveland for a taste of the fresh shrimp.
Brown was a city girl and had her sights set on working as a fashion designer in New York City until she became smitten with Darryl, a hog farmer, during her senior year in college.
They married and in 1991 moved to Indiana where they weren’t surrounded by subdivisions. The plan was to break ground on a hog farm with Darryl’s family. Hog prices plummeted in 1992, however, so the couple decided to change directions.
“My husband and father-in-law always wanted livestock and were intrigued by aquaculture,” Brown said.
Initially, the couple researched tilapia farming, but the initial high costs eventually turned them toward shrimp.
It was trial and error when they launched their shrimp operation in 2010.
Brown’s husband was running a construction company at the time and the couple had about eight greenhouses to tend. Karlanea was just excited to have fresh shrimp to dip during dinner, but she wasn’t allowed to touch any of the equipment.
That quickly changed.
It took Darryl five hours to test each of their six shrimp tanks, and the Browns also had some nursery tanks holding the young "fry."
“On Day 2 I did everything in less than an hour and now I’ve been here for 12 years,” she said. “I never would have thought this is what I would love getting up to do each day.”
The couple found swimming pools work better than standard aquaculture tanks. They currently run a combination of 14- and 16-foot pools rigged up with PVC piping to circulate the salt water.
They buy the young shrimp, usually no bigger than the size of an eyelash, from one of three U.S. retailers every 25 days. The orders can be as large as 80,000 tiny shrimp.
Just a couple doors separate the retail shop from the two spacious and humid rooms housing the swimming shrimp in 19 production tanks.
"We actually got some fiberglass tanks to experiment with and we actually were trying to figure out if that would be our permanent solution instead of replacing swimming pools every three years," Karlanea said. "Those were actually our worst survival rate tanks really."
During their first year raising shrimp, the Browns did everything industry experts, including Yoram Avnimelech who literally wrote the book on their system, told them to do.
Now, they lead the way.
Trials and errors
The Browns initially followed the common practices for biofloc, the bacterial filtering system they use, but found it wasn’t working well for them.
“We were the third (shrimp farm) in the U.S. and we had these massive pump systems but never got more than a 20% survival rate,” Brown said. “We lost millions of shrimp the first two years.”
They tried deviating during the second year but realized what they were being told just wasn’t working. So they forged their own path and invented a system and a balance that gave them greater survival rates.
“I don’t have a biology or chemistry background, I just look at the size of the shrimp,” she said. “I want to make sure they’re happy and grow.”
The plan worked, and not only were the survival rates increasing, but shrimp that would typically take around 250 days to get to market size now take about 150 days.
The bacteria in the tanks turn ammonia from the shrimp waste to nitrate to filter the tanks without those large pump systems the Browns first used. This replaces the need for the standard biofilters usually found in aquaculture, and allows them to raise shrimp with no antibiotics or hormones. Karlanea said the old pumps moved the water too much, rolling and upsetting the shrimp.
The colonies of bacteria, called biofloc, now stay suspended in the water keeping it clean and balancing the food sources. The Browns were able to build a system that keeps a slow and steady flow of water in the tanks without disrupting the growing shrimp, thus saving the needs to change the expensive salt water.
Biofloc is a sustainable and environmentally friendly way to raise aquatic species, a 2020 report in ScienceDirect says. It can prevent disease, improve water quality and lead to efficient use of land and water.
The bacteria also attach to the excess food, keeping maintenance levels low.
The Browns use a specialized feed using a 35% protein diet. It's a pellet food with fish, corn, soy, algae and vitamins.
Karlanea brags that her water is 12 years old and is proud that she’s been able to keep it healthy for so long.
Expanding and offering a helping hand
Now, the Browns want to expand their number of production tanks and use their knowledge to help train others who are interested in raising shrimp. They’ve assisted people in 14 countries, Karlanea said, and are working currently with a couple in the Czech Republic and several here in the U.S.
“We try to help set up these farmers because we need more shrimp farmers,” Karlanea said. “We’ve got to quit overharvesting the ocean because she needs to resupply herself.”
Small-scale shrimp farms, about eight tanks or less, aren't great moneymakers, Karlanea said, and are better for diversifying a farm that also raises cattle or other livestock.
The initial investments into aquaculture, generators, heat sources and blowers, are the big expense items, and scaling up from a small operation is easy.
"If you're at a small scale, you might clear $25,000 a year," Karlanea said. "Once you start scaling up, you'll have more income and a lower overhead."
Phillip Shambach, president of the Indiana Aquaculture Association, is good friends with the Browns who both sit on the association’s board.
“They’ve got a pretty good setup over there and have a nursery, so it’s kind of a one-stop shop. It’s a neat place to go,” Shambach said.
Darryl is the green thumb, growing a variety of cultivars including spruce and maple trees, sunny perennials, house plants and some vegetables while Karlanea handles the day-to-day operations of the shrimp farm.
Their establishment is a bit like a farmers’ market where you can buy houseplants, trees and of course, shrimp, Shambach said.
Shambach raises tilapia at Tippco Fish, though he’s in reconstruction following a fire in December. The Association’s goal, he said, is to promote all the different aquaculture operation in Indiana. There are about 20 affiliated farms in the association.
The state has trout farms, salmon farms and even koi farms, he said, as well as a good number of pond stockers who raise sport fish like blue gill, bass and shiners.
One of the biggest hurdles new aquaculture ventures in the state face is marketing, Shambach said.
“Aquaculture is all niche marketing,” he said.
To help pull back the curtains and educate customers, the Browns provide tours of the facility to anyone interested in seeing their operation.
The Browns pride themselves in the clean food they’re able to offer customers and Karlanea will help educate those tour groups on how to properly read their food packages. Labeling that says “farm-raised” can be from anywhere in the world, Karlanea said. Flip that package over and look for the country where it came from.
“My goal is to get out and educate people about what they are actually eating,” she said.
The tours take about 10 or 15 minutes for customers, but Karlanea will spend three or four hours with anyone who is interested in starting their own farm.
Customers walking through the humid rooms full of saltwater tanks can meet Bob, the 5-year-old tilapia.
Bob is a bit of an accident left over from when the Browns tried raising the breed, Karlanea said. They can’t sell him because he’s the wrong variety, but he’s happy enough to come swim up to the edge when Karlanea passes by his tank.
There’s also Sheldon and Squirtle, the turtles; Bubba the albino frog; and Bob (yes, there are a number of "Bobs" at RDM), a two-year-old shrimp in an aquarium at the store’s register.
All this to say, Karlanea and the Browns are fully enamored with sea life. Their four aquariums are proof enough. But few people come to see the Bobs, however charming. Fresh shrimp is the big draw for most customers, who usually leave with a bag of live shrimp packed on ice.
Before you visit
Give a call to RDM Aquaculture before you make the trek out there, or check out the farm's Facebook page, Karlanea said. They sometimes run out of shrimp, but are always just a few weeks away from having more to offer.
The farm is located at 101 N. 850 East in Fowler and they're open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Karl Schneider is an IndyStar environment reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @karlstartswithk
IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Grown IN Indiana: Hoosier farmers built a seafood oasis