GRATIOT, Ohio (AP) — In the village straddling Licking and Muskingum counties, a large building is tucked away on a quiet road less than a quarter-mile north of Interstate 70.
With several large garage doors and simple gray siding, the structure is unassuming, but three little words on the blue sign at the gate of the property would make many do a double-take: Ohio grown seafood.
Miles from any sea, the village of Gratiot has more saltwater shrimp than it does people.
They’re in eight tanks at The Ocean’s Friend Aquaculture, a saltwater shrimp farm on Hopewell Lane that began operating last fall. Each tank, about 14 feet in diameter, holds about 250 to 300 pounds of all-natural Pacific white leg shrimp.
Started by 23-year-old Ashtyn Chen, a Cambridge native, the facility uses a biofloc system, where water is filtered naturally with bacteria, and oxygen, temperature, salinity, pH levels and other conditions can be manipulated to the shrimp’s liking.
It’s not an easy feat to grow these crustaceans that ultimately land, cooked to pink perfection, on a plate.
“A lot of people call them the sissies of the sea,” Chen said after scooping a live, grayish-opaque blob of a shrimp out of one of the tanks. “I guess they are, because they have to be taken care of so badly.”
Chen brings the shrimp from a nursery in Indiana, where he has a similar facility with other aquaculture colleagues. They grow and mature in the Gratiot tanks for 10 to 14 weeks.
Growing up, Chen was constantly watching television shows about animals and the ocean and always had an interest in marine biology, his mother, Carol Chen, said. He ultimately got a degree in biochemical engineering from the University of Southern California and now lives and works in Maryland as a chemical engineer. But he comes back to Gratiot often to tend the shrimp.
He became interested in the idea of a shrimp farm after meeting a Purdue University aquaculture professor, but he ultimately decided to see it through for his family. Chen’s parents own a Chinese restaurant in Zanesville, and he hopes to give them an alternative to the busy restaurant industry they’ve worked in for more than 30 years.
“It’s tough,” Chen said. “This is a simpler lifestyle for them.”
His parents maintain the day-to-day operations at the facility when Chen is away.
Prawn farms have become popular, with about 25 in Ohio, but saltwater shrimp farms are fairly new, said Matthew Smith, extension aquaculture specialist at Ohio State University’s South Centers in Piketon. The Ocean’s Friend Aquaculture is believed to be the only saltwater shrimp farm operating right now in Ohio, Smith said.
Prawns are grown in fresh water and shrimp are grown in saltwater but are otherwise very similar. Prawns can grow a little bit larger, but the texture and taste are alike, Smith said. Unlike prawns, growing shrimp in a facility like Chen’s means that weather isn’t an issue, Smith added.
“Everyone’s pretty familiar with the freshwater prawns, and it’s a very captivating thing because they are grown here,” Smith said. “But I think the saltwater hits home even more because Americans do consume so much shrimp.”
Growing saltwater shrimp in Ohio also plays into the popular local food movement, Smith said. Consumers get peace of mind knowing where their food comes from, which is especially important in the shrimp industry, he said.
More than 90 percent of seafood consumed in the United States annually is imported, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
But with shrimp raised here, consumers don’t have to guess where it came from, Smith said.
“They want food grown locally, they know the farmer who grows it, they know the county it’s grown in,” he said.
The Chens are beginning to sell their shrimp at some local farmers markets, including Zanesville’s.
“It’s kind of a new concept,” said Zanesville Farmers Market Manager Betty Tolliver, who said she often sees marketgoers gathered around the shrimp business to learn about them and how to cook with them.
“People are starting to get excited over it,” she said.
The shrimp also can be purchased at Chen’s Gratiot facility. The cost ranges from $15 to $18 per pound, depending on the size, and the shrimp are sold with the heads and shells on. Wholesale prices are also offered.
Money is coming in, Chen said, and he’s happy to be breaking even after buying the building and the equipment for the facility.
“It’s a little slower than I expected, but it’s picking up steam very quickly,” he said.
Growing shrimp in places like Ohio can take some pressure off of the world’s oceans, especially given concerns about carbon dioxide and overfishing, Chen said. He hopes to raise other seafood at his Gratiot facility, including crawfish, blue crab and possibly scallops and mussels.
“I want to alleviate that pain,” he said. “Take stress off the ocean environment and still provide the seafood.”
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com