EL PASO -- Most Central Illinois farmers raise corn and soybeans, or maybe livestock. But one farmer near El Paso, Ill. is raising saltwater shrimp.
The Steiner Farm offers honey, plants and produce in addition to saltwater shrimp. It's a family project for David and Sandy Steiner and their seven children, ages 14 to two.
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"We're just kind of common folk trying to get by, you know. Trying to keep our kids busy and to teach them what's right," said Steiner, who works full time off the farm.
The idea began about 12 years ago, but really took off over the last two years. The first shrimp came to the farm in April of 2012, and they sold their first product in August. The family's three acre spread near El Paso includes the "shrimp shop," a machine shed that has been modified with floor heat and insulation, which allows it to hold four production tanks for shrimp of different ages. The 18-ft. diameter swimming pools are four feet deep and hold about 6,200 gallons of well water. The Steiners add salt to a level of 10 parts per thousand, which is one-third the salinity of ocean water.
"That is sufficient enough for saltwater shrimp to survive in a controlled environment like we have," said Steiner.
The shrimp begin at a hatchery in Florida that is specific pathogen free (SPF).
"What they're trying to do is raise shrimp that don't have any of the natural diseases that you would find in shrimp in the wild," said Steiner. "Those little baby shrimp - they're called PLs, post larvae - they can be shipped in the mail overnight FedEx."
The shrimp first go to a farm in Indiana, which raises them for 35-40 days. The Steiners buy the juvenile shrimp at that point and feed them for another 110-120 days. While they have no nursery tank for the post larvae shrimp right now, Steiner hopes to add that in the future. Currently, the shrimp weigh one to two grams when they come to The Steiner Farm. The goal is to raise them to a weight of 18-20 grams, or around 150 days old. The target is 20-22 shrimp per pound.
In the meantime, Steiner monitors the water quality, including dissolved oxygen and nitrite levels, and alkalinity. He also measures the pH and can regulate those levels in the same way as in crop fields, gardens or lawns. While lime is the nutrient of choice in those situations, Steiner uses calcium carbonate, which affects alkalinity but also binds carbon dioxide, benefiting the shrimp.
The biggest challenge is heating the building during the winter. Although the floor heat is connected to a geothermal unit, Steiner struggles to maintain the 80-85 degree water necessary in the tanks during the cold winter temperatures. There is also uncertainty about supply and demand, but Steiner pointed out the shrimp is a premium product not available anywhere else outside of coastal areas.
"You can have shrimp just about as fresh as you're ever going to get it, because down by the coast, the time that a shrimp boat might harvest it and get to the dock and get it unloaded and get it in your hands and then you get home. if you're coming from Bloomington-Normal, in 20 minutes you can have your shrimp in the water and in 35 minutes you can be eating the freshest shrimp you ever had," said Steiner.
The Steiner Farm sells fresh shrimp at $18 per pound and $10 per half pound. Steiner encourages customers to go to Google to learn how to prepare it, but said the possibilities are endless.
"We've done it on the grill, we've steamed it, we've sautéed `em, we've boiled `em, we've have them boiled and then cooled and dipped in sauce," said Steiner. "The options are limitless, as far as how you want to do the shrimp."
Steiner's family does more than just eat the shrimp they raise. His oldest son, Samuel, works on the business website and helps to maintain the Facebook page. Another son, Aaron, is interested in building and helped with modification of the machine shed.
Son Silas is the artist who helped to design the "kid-inspired" logo for the farm and t-shirts worn by the family when they are selling their products. The family has spent limited time at a local farmer's market and hopes to expand that part of the business in the future. Steiner said in that setting or at the farm, he's glad to answer any questions about the shrimp for customers.
"What I've said before is, it's a `look the producer in the eye' kind of local, fresh quality," said Steiner. "We put salt in our water, we put well water in our tanks, we put calcium carbonate, and we put shrimp. We don't put too much besides that in the tanks. So, as far as the waste, there is very little waste in the whole system."
And even the waste that is generated goes to good use. Steiner said last summer's asparagus thrived thanks to the fertilizer from the shrimp tanks.