November 28, 2020

Artisan Iowa Shrimp: Mike Heuck’s Shrimp Shed Offers a Fresh Alternative

Shrimp have been called the fruit of the sea, but they are also the latest crop on Mike Heuck’s Clay County farm east of Everly.

“I was looking to diversify my operation but didn’t want to do something everyone else was doing,” said Heuck, a third-generation farmer who has farmed full-time since 1985. “There aren’t a lot of shrimp farms like this, so it seemed like a good opportunity.”

Heuck and his wife, Tammi, decided to move forward with their new venture in 2013. While Heuck used to custom feed cattle, his facilities were worn out, and he didn’t want to replace them. He did his homework before taking the plunge into shrimp farming.

In 2012, Heuck visited with a family who were raising shrimp on their farm south of Cherokee. He also toured an Iowa farm that raises hybrid striped bass. Next, he traveled to Indiana to tour shrimp farms and connect with RDM Aquaculture, a shrimp farming consulting company in Fowler, IN.

20141008_maxyield_007 (1024x681)After Heuck developed a plan and shared his financial projections with his banker, he had the green light to move forward with his project. In the summer of 2013, Heuck built a 120-foot by 36-foot shed on his farm to house his new shrimp operation. He also got an aquaculture site permit license from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “It has been quite a learning experience,” said Heuck, who stocked his first shrimp in December of 2013 and sold his first “crop” in March of 2014.

Choose from live or Easy Peel shrimp
The process begins when Heuck drives nine hours to Indiana with his truck and trailer. He purchases post larval (PL) baby shrimp and hauls them back to northwest Iowa in four insulated, 70-gallon fiberglass tanks on the trailer. “I make this trip every other month,” he noted.

The PLs, which weigh half a gram to three quarters of a gram, are collected with mesh nets and are transferred into the 14-foot-diameter tanks in The Shrimp Shed. While the 12 tanks are four feet tall, Heuck fills them to the three-foot level so the shrimp don’t jump out as they grow. Nets also cover the tanks to keep the shrimp in place.

It takes about three to four months to raise shrimp to their market weight of 22 to 24 grams. Heuck’s goal is to produce 120 to 130 pounds of shrimp out of every tank. “There are 18 to 22 shrimp in a pound,” noted Heuck, whose family sells live shrimp and Easy Peel shrimp direct from the farm and at local farmers’ markets.

Successful shrimp production requires careful management, Heuck added. “It’s hard to produce farmed shrimp in volume. If the tanks are too big, it’s too hard to control the water chemistry and maintain the health of the shrimp. That’s why there’s a niche for an operation like mine.”
Water quality is key
There was a steep learning curve, however. In the early months of the business, Heuck and his hired man worked at The Shrimp Shed eight hours a day all winter, learning how to maintain  water quality and manage other variables.

Today, Heuck tests the water once a day in the morning before the shrimp receive the first of their two daily feedings. “You need to test the water at the same time every day for consistency, since water parameters change throughout the day,” Heuck said.

In the small lab in The Shrimp Shed, Heuck or his employee checks the water samples daily for temperature, dissolved oxygen, salinity, nitrates, ammonia, and more. “Some water is lost through evaporation, so we have to add new water periodically,” added Heuck, who noted that each tank also contains 400 to 500 pounds of sea salt.

Shrimp live in the same water the whole time they are on the farm, added Heuck, who uses biological filtration to maintain the water quality. Even though the shrimp lose their shells about three times a month as they molt and grow, the biological filtration system dissolves the shells.

20141008_maxyield_010 (1024x681)Each shrimp tank also includes a radiant heat system with 130 feet of tubing per tank to keep the water around 82 degrees. A propane-fueled boiler in the mechanical room heats the water, said Heuck, who purchases his liquid propane from MaxYield Cooperative. “Our delivery driver, Adam Gisch, pays close attention to our LP tank because he knows this is The Shrimp Shed’s only source of heat. I’m also on the monitoring system, so I don’t have to worry about running out of LP.”

When it’s time to feed the shrimp twice a day by hand, Heuck uses a pelleted feed made of fish meal and shrimp meal that he purchases from Zeigler Bros. in Pennsylvania. “It takes me two to three hours a day to do the feeding and water testing,” said Heuck, who also raises corn and soybeans and sells much of his grain to MaxYield’s Fostoria location.

Part of the chores also includes checking the mechanical systems that keep The Shrimp Shed running, such as the motors that power the aeration pumps for the tanks.

When it’s time to harvest the shrimp, Heuck uses a dip net. He sorts the shrimp in a bucket and returns the small ones to the tanks. “It’s helpful to have two people help with the harvest, Heuck noted. “The shrimp are easier to catch this way. Otherwise, they will start circling around the tank and are harder to net.”

Discover what fresh tastes like
To promote and market their shrimp, which are always sold fresh, never frozen, the Heucks use The Shrimp Shed’s Facebook® page. They also attend the farmers market every Saturday in Spencer during the summer.

“We’re proud to provide locally grown, clean saltwater shrimp,” said Heuck, who noted that The Shrimp Shed’s products have been featured in menu specials (including shrimp tacos) at restaurants in Spencer.
Iowa-grown shrimp provide a healthy food option, Heuck added. Approximately 90% of shrimp consumed in America are imported, which can create challenges. “In Asia, shrimp producers dose their shrimp with antibiotics, including chloramphenicol, which is banned in the United States,” Heuck noted.

Locally grown shrimp also offer a superior texture and sweeter flavor than imported shrimp, according to a customer from Gillette Grove. “If you haven’t tried shrimp from The Shrimp Shed, do it!” said the customer, who commented on The Shrimp Shed’s Facebook page. “We bought some other shrimp [from a local grocery store] for comparison. Tracy’s mom was afraid she wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Well, you can! The Shrimp Shed’s shrimp are much sweeter and so much easier to eat.”

Interacting directly with customers and providing them with high-quality shrimp is one of the best parts of running The Shrimp Shed, said Heuck, who plans to expand into farmers’ markets in Sheldon and Arnolds Park in 2015. “There’s a lot of potential to grow.”

For more information about The Shrimp Shed, log on to www.facebook.com/shrimpshed or call 712-834-2323. ■

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