By Brandy Harrison
CAMPBELLFORD — Done with dairy and priced out of a floundering hog market, Paul Cocchio started thinking small, wading into the unknown and three years of red tape to turn his Campbellford hog barn into a ‘tropical’ locale for thousands of tiny shrimp.
“We had no experience. We were diving in head first and we were going to make it work,” says his son, Brad.
After a year of figuring out how to keep the shrimp alive, Toronto buyers are nearly busting down the door of Ontario’s first saltwater Pacific white shrimp farm.
It started with three empty hog barns, built in 1998 when Paul and his wife Tracy sold the dairy cattle on their Eastern Ontario farm. The Cocchios turned to cash crops when the bottom fell out of the hog market in the mid-2000s, but couldn’t bear to leave the barns unused.
A Google search turned up YouTube videos of former Maryland and Indiana livestock farms that were raising shrimp and Paul was sold.
“By that time, it was already carved in stone: He was doing it whether I thought it was cool or not,” says Brad, who sometimes got up for his 3 a.m. shift as a cheesemaker at Empire Cheese & Butter Co-op to find his dad doing online research or drawing diagrams.
“If he’s got something on his mind, he won’t stop until he gets it figured out.”
It took three years to get all the permits and approvals, including adding Pacific white shrimp to the list of species that can be farmed in Ontario. There’s now a second shrimp farm under construction, this one at Aylmer, south of London, and it plans to be bigger (see story on page 13).
Over the year-long retrofit to create a hot, humid oasis, the Cocchios insulated the 200 by 40 ft. barn inside and out, pulling out the slatted floors to pour concrete walls for 16 tanks with pond liners and installed air pumps, aerators, heaters, and a dock-like walkway to get between tanks. Each tank needed more than 40 boxes of salt that each weighed 43 lb.
While the Cocchios are mum on start-up costs for First Ontario Shrimp, farms stateside have shelled out big bucks. Dairyland Shrimp in Wisconsin spent US $180,000 on equipment and RDM Aquaculture LLC in Indiana put out US $350,000, offering a US $120,000 start-up package to other farmers for an eight-tank system.
The first batch of 22,000 eyelash-sized post-larvae shrimp arrived from a pathogen-free Florida hatchery in September 2014. Every second week, 22,000 more arrive.
The shrimp spend one month in one of four starter tanks and are transferred to one of 16 four-foot-deep grow-out tanks. They are ready to sell when they reach maturity — about 20 grams and five-inches long — after four months. They are scooped out with nets into ice water to kill them and put on ice in Styrofoam coolers for shipping.
There’s one small hitch. Without being able to see the shrimp at the bottom of the murky pools, the Cocchios don’t know how many they have until harvest day.
The first harvest only turned out five lb. of shrimp. “Our survivability at the start was terrible,” Brad says.
With high power costs and buying both feed and starter shrimp in U.S. dollars, the pressure was on to figure it out fast.
“We were told our first year we’d want to quit. The bills kept piling up and shrimp weren’t going out the door,” Brad says.
For every degree cooler than 29 C, the finicky shrimp go off five per cent of their feed. It all comes down to a delicately balanced ecosystem, which rests almost entirely on nursing natural bacteria, a fluffy brown algae suspended in the water called bio-floc. The bio-floc feeds on shrimp waste and excess feed, flourishing to become another shrimp food source, and is recycled from tank-to-tank.
“It’s like a muddy puddle,” Brad says. “This feels more like farming water. If it’s not right, the shrimp don’t do well.”
But there was no instruction manual and only so much other farms could tell them — no two tanks are the same. “Trial and error is the only way to do it.”
You can’t just fill the tank and walk away, he says. With three daily feedings and constantly testing the water for everything from temperature and pH to bio-floc levels, some days the Cocchios spend 14 hours in the barn among the three of them.
“Unless you spend the time, things can go downhill in a hurry. Your water can completely change within a couple of hours,” Brad says.
After their first 35 harvests, they were getting the hang of it. Yields picked up last fall and one tank yielded 186 lb. in January.
As the first out of the gate, the market was hungry.
“We’ve done very little marketing. It’s pretty much done itself. Selling them has never been an issue,” Brad says. “It sucks having to turn people away.”
The roughly 100 lb. of shrimp harvested each week can’t keep up with demand. Most of the $18-per-lb. shrimp is bought by five regular restaurants and a fish counter in Toronto. The Cocchios make the two-hour trip every Thursday and are aiming for 400-lb. weekly harvests — grossing $7,200 per week. They don’t rule out converting a second barn.
Most shrimp on North American plates were frozen and sourced from Southeast Asia where there have been allegations of slave labour and heavy antibiotic use, so it’s freshness and the local food craze that’s buoyed interest, Brad says. They leave the head on to prove it — true seafood aficionados judge freshness by whether the eyes have begun deteriorating.
They may not be the only player for long. Planet Shrimp, based out of the former Imperial Tobacco plant in Aylmer, in Western Ontario, aims to start production later this year with a goal of producing 400,000 lb. annually.
Brad is confident the industry has only one way to go: up.
“In the long run, it’s going to pay off. You have to keep that in the back of your mind. We’ve come a long way already.”